Just past noon on August 9, 2023, Eileen Wernsdorfer died peacefully of natural causes, at home in Timonium, Maryland, attended by her three surviving children. She was 96.
Mrs. Wernsdorfer wandered far over the course of her life. She grew up in England, emigrated to the United States, then spent 30 years working in Saudi Arabia before retiring to the Baltimore area.
Eileen Cornthwaite Smith was born in 1926 into a large working-class family in Blackburn, Lancashire, about 25 miles inland from the Irish Sea. When her parents weren’t looking, she liked to play along the bleak narrow banks of the River Blakewater, as it coursed through the neighborhood near their home at 29 Harrison Street. Growing up in the 1930s and 40s, Eileen knew the privations of the Great Depression and World War II with its stringent austerity measures. (Later in life she’d recall gathering mussels along the seacoast, foraging for food.)
Postwar, Eileen emigrated to the United States in 1948, settling in Baltimore, Maryland. There she worked a variety of jobs: obstetrics nurse, telephone operator, bartender, club singer. As a club singer, she became friends with and was often accompanied by pianist John McCraw, who would later go on to head the National Federation of the Blind Maryland. She had an alto singing voice at that time, but later she’d sing tenor and sometimes bass in a community choir.
Within a few years she met and began dating John Wernsdorfer, who during the War had been trained as an Army Pharmacy Technician—he’d worked as a laboratory assistant before being drafted—and was employed by Standard Oil at a local refinery at the time the two met. In 1954 John took a position as a medic with the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia. When he shipped off, Eileen returned to England for a spell before John showed up to propose. They married in Blackburn and moved to Dhahran (and Abqaiq) where they raised four children—Paul born in 1956, Peter in 1957, Andrew in 1959, and Lesley Ann in 1964.
When her sons were growing up, Eileen was a den mother for Dhahran Cub Scouts Den #5, and many of her cubs remember her with fondness. For a couple of years she and her friend Pauline D’Souza took over the nursery school that had been run by Patsy Tarvin who’d remain a lifelong friend of Eileen’s. She also had a sidegig as a travel agent. After the boys went to boarding school, Eileen worked as an administrative assistant in the Children’s Ward, Materials & Supplies, Recreation, Housing, the Medical Library, and Employment.
Meanwhile, John rose through the ranks and by the end of his 30-year tenure was a hospital administrator who had spearheaded a regional expansion of the public health arm of Aramco Health Services (whose size rivaled any single medical operation in the world) and supervised much of the construction of a new medical facility in Dhahran.
The years in Saudi Arabia afforded many opportunities for travel. John and Eileen enjoyed a delayed honeymoon in Egypt about a year after they were married, just before the kids started showing up. (On that trip, they toured around with actor Tab Hunter, who was shooting on location.) After a transatlantic crossing on the Italian ocean liner Raffaelo, the whole family drove in an International Harvester Travelall (an early SUV) in a caravan with the Tarvins (who were in a Mustang) from Genoa, Italy, through Austria (where it snowed), Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey (where, among many other interesting sites and events, John picked up some hitchhiking Peace Corps volunteers whom Eileen gifted with a ham for Thanksgiving), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Kuwait on the way back to Dhahran.
They traveled widely while in the US, too. There was an ill-fated trip with a poorly maintained RV that barely got them from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, not Yellowstone as planned. During a trip to visit schools in New England for Andy, John drove the family over the White Mountains of New Hampshire—during a blizzard. Eileen sat calmly in the passenger seat, hands crossed in her lap, belying the reality that her stomach was in her throat. She endured that and other vertiginous car rides (one up the guardrail-free road to Ski Apache near Ruidoso, New Mexico) so her children could see the world, or just enjoy skiing. She successfully managed never to ski nor to drive a car, but she certainly saw the world.
After retirement, they settled in Timonium outside Baltimore, but their wanderlust did not abate. Most years from 1984 to 1998, relatives from England and Germany came to visit, so Eileen and John would show them the sites, all across the country: caves, canyons, middens, and mountains, they were game. On several occasions, they were glad and grateful to reciprocate with visits the other way.
At home, Eileen liked to keep busy. She crocheted and sewed, and once grandchildren started coming, she was always ready to work on a craft project with them. Bequeathed a big bag of old silk ties collected by a world traveler, Eileen began cutting them up and repiecing them into fabric (crazy-quilt style) from which she made vests, bowls, wall hangings, whatever a person might ask for. Or sometimes whatever she wanted to make for you, and somehow it was always exactly what you wanted, even if you’d never thought of it. The fullness of those years was in happy contrast to her austere girlhood.
After John died in 2011, Lesley Ann and her (future) husband Kevin moved to Timonium to care for Eileen, and those three became one more family with Eileen at its heart.
Eileen handled difficulty with dignity and grace, and it was her example that helped the rest of the family grieve the death of her eldest son Paul in 2016. As she had during that mighty blizzard in the White Mountains, or when Peter at one year old went overboard in the Chesapeake Bay, or when Andy didn’t speak until he was four, or when Lesley Ann at two went head first off a large footstool, Eileen waited patiently to see the outcome. She didn’t catastrophize or carry on. She simply waited until fear was subsumed by her deep and abiding love, even when the outcome was painful.
She’d travel less extensively in later years, but there were a few memorable trips. In 2012, Eileen and Lesley Ann surprised old friend Melania Kaharl in Massachusetts for her 90th birthday. In 2014, sons Paul and Andrew took Eileen on a final trip to the UK, spending time in London, Edinburgh, Blackburn, and Accrington. In October 2014, Eileen’s niece Avril came to visit, and she, Eileen, and Lesley Ann took the long train ride to visit son Peter and his wife Helen in Vermont. Over the years, Eileen attended several Aramco reunions, including Las Vegas in 2008 and Bastrop in 2018, which turned out to be her last major trip, where she got to visit with old friends Patsy Tarvin and Lucy Templer. Even as late as 2022, Eileen and Lesley Ann enjoyed an overnight getaway to visit dear friend Pat Lambiotte in southern Pennsylvania.
She was healthy and active well into her 90s. In June 2023, Eileen was admitted to the Gilchrist Hospice Center in Towson, and her children gathered to be with her. Tenacious as ever, Eileen rallied, so much so that after five weeks, the family was able to bring her home. She enjoyed a few precious weeks in her own surroundings attended by her children and nurses Barb, Juliet, and Teresia. They and son-in-law Kevin were also present at her passing.
The family could not be more grateful for the care Eileen received at Gilchrist Towson, in Gilchrist’s home hospice program, and from Sarah’s Loving Care.
Keen to advance medical science and following Paul’s example, Eileen donated her body to the Maryland State Anatomy Board. The family will hold a memorial celebration on 12 May 2024, Mother’s Day.
To honor Eileen’s memory, please consider donations to Gilchrist Hospice Care (or to a hospice organization near you) or to the John T. McCraw Scholarship Fund of the National Federation of the Blind Maryland.
Please send condolences to 2153 Chapel Valley Lane, Timonium, MD 21093.
Eileen Cornthwaite Wernsdorfer is survived by her sons Peter and Andrew and daughter Lesley Ann; grandchildren Philip, Laura, Paige, Timothea, and Emma; great grandson Gene Peter; daughters-in-law Helen Scheerens and Terri Ashinhurst; son-in-law Kevin Whitehead; and many nieces and nephews.