Posted by: Jennifer Williams | January 12, 2012

He had me at ‘y’all’

I’m a fan of the simple things – giving back, being thankful, having fun and enjoying life. I think that’s why I have taken such a liking to Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith.

Just two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, Smith is a passionate, enthusiastic football player who has really struck a chord in the land of purple pride. Yes he’s making stellar catches in the endzone, but more than that, he is simply a good person.

Long before I saw the Today Show episode where he spoke with Jenna Bush about raising his six siblings while his mom worked, I started following this Ravens rookie on Twitter (@TorreySmithWR)

#82 making the catch (Image found on


What have I learned from my Twitter stalking of the Virginia native who made his field debut for the Ravens 108 days ago?

He goes to church. He often starts out the day with a “Good morning y’all” to his 53,971 followers. He recently got a dog. He’s always participating in community events and giving shout-outs to his Ravens teammates, such as Matt Birk, who recently became father to his fourth child. He talks about his nice, Ravens fan neighbors who bring him cookies and cakes. He thanks God for the opportunity to play the great game of football – but he doesn’t want to talk football all of the time.

He’s inspirational, tweeting quotes such as, “Treat your work life like it’s your first day and your family like it is your last day.”

He appreciates what he has, with tweets such as “Stadium bound. #ravensnation #blessed” or “Life is short. We get too many reminders every day.”

And, while he may be more subtle than Tim Tebow, he is Christian and not afraid to show it, as he indicated in this Christmas Day tweet, “Merry Christmas y’all … opening gifts and being with the family is amazing, but don’t forget the real meaning.”

So on Sunday, as I gather with good friends to enjoy the simple pleasure of watching the AFC Divisional Playoffs, I will be rooting for my team and #82. Get it!

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | December 27, 2011

Aunt Gertrude and other holiday lessons

I have a 20-something friend who spends her days working with the elderly. Many have dementia. Some are rude and blurt out foul language. Some are truly sweet. My friend seems to have a place in her heart for them all. She has affectionately dubbed them, “the olds.”

Over the holidays, I spent some quality time with the “olds” in my own life. And what I have found is that humor is vital, and it really is the life in your years, and not the years in your life, that make the difference.

Over Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of spending some time with my boyfriend’s 80-something grandmother. Much to the delight of her family, this sweet-as-can-be woman donned a Ray Rice Raven’s jersey and posed for pictures. This lighthearted moment will surely be a lifetime memory for the family.

On Christmas Eve, I spent time with good friends and their relatives. My friends are taking their soon-to-be 70-year-old parents, who have been married 48 years, to Ireland this summer. To stay in shape, the mother is doing more than an hour of water aerobics three times a week. Smiling and laughing as they sat surrounded by family, it’s clear their lives are full and rich and happy.

My friends’ Aunt Gertrude also made an appearance on Christmas Eve. She might be on the brink of turning 90, but Aunt Gertrude is clearly full of sparkle and good fun. She walked into the party donned in a festive red blazer and a musical Santa hat, which was an instant hit.

“Can you believe I got my hair done and now I’m wearing this thing?” she said to me. “I still have hair under here, you know.”

I can only hope that if I make it to 90, I have half as much humor and energy.

For Christmas morning, I had breakfast with my grandparents, who are in their late 80s. They admit they are slowing down now, but their eyes light up as they talk about all their adventures. Water skiing, trips to Monaco and dining out with friends were among the things they talked about. My grandfather has served in the military and had a career spanning more than 40 years at a dairy. But as he delighted in telling stories, it’s clear he’s had a life of fun as well.

“This life don’t owe me nothing,” said my grandfather, reflecting on his fulfilling life.

What a great thing to be able to say.

Finally on Christmas afternoon, I spent time with my other grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandfather recently got out of the hospital and toward the end of the evening, he had my cousin, aunt and me cracking up as he joked about his situation and some of the unpleasant side effects. It’s unfortunate he has health issues, but so wonderful he was able to just laugh about it.

I may still be a little ways away from being an “old,” but I truly do appreciate the richness, joy and lessons they bring to my life.

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | November 4, 2011

Embrace food and family at the holidays

Yesterday, my coworker mentioned he went to a nearby bakery, and it started me thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and all of the wonderful pies and pumpkin desserts that will be made. Food has such a way of bringing people together, especially during the holidays.

I have great memories of working in the kitchen with my mom at Christmas, my brother and I reaching out with sticky little fingers to dribble colorful sprinkles across sugar cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees, bells and Santas. Our decorating jobs were no “Top Chef” performance, but to us they were masterpieces of fun.

Trips to my grandfather’s farm for the holiday, where everyone would be clustered around the large kitchen helping to cook pots of mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, sauerkraut and sausage, ham and turkey, also bring back fond memories.

When it comes time to eat, we all scoot our chairs in to two big tables brimming with food – cousins, aunts, uncles and even a few little pups scurrying underfoot.

It’s quite a scene, and the conversation is all over the map. People shout from table to table, dogs bark, stories are told and people laugh so hard tears stream down their faces.

There’s a line from the movie “Wedding Date” that goes, “You know those families where everyone’s out of their mind, but at the end of the day, they’re your family so you love them? Mine’s not like that.”

That comment makes me laugh, because I can completely imagine where the lead character is coming from. Holiday gatherings with the family can be “interesting,” but at the end of the day, I do love, and am grateful for, everyone in my family. Special people will pass into and out of our lives. I feel like the holidays are the perfect time to breathe it all in – the wonderful food, the crazy family and all those who make a difference in our lives.

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | September 15, 2011

Good things can happen to good people

Once upon a time, on one of the coolest blocks in Baltimore City, a group of neighbors came together to show their thanks and to bring a little joy to someone’s day.

A message was circulated that Miss Jenny, a very kind soul and a very good Catholic, had been nominated to win a bouquet of locally grown flowers. Miss Jenny is one of the first people anyone meets when they move onto the block and is gracious enough to collect all the UPS and FedEx packages for residents. She has been taking care of her husband, Mr. Ed, for years. He is wheelchair-bound and recently had a stroke as well as undergoing some other medical complications.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, thought the block, if Miss Jenny could win these beautiful flowers and know how appreciated she is?

Minutes after the message about the contest was sent out, responses came tumbling in. “What a great idea. I just put in my vote,” said one neighbor. “I just voted 20 times,” said another. Even people living on nearby streets cast their votes.

After Miss Jenny was declared the overwhelming winner for the month of August by Ellen from Local Color Flowers, all were filled with joy.

“I think this was great,” said neighbor Matt. “She does so much for our street and Mr. Ed. She is a modern-day hero.”

Matt has volunteered to take Miss Jenny to doctor appointments on several occasions.

“This is great,” echoed another neighbor, Julie, who has driven Miss Jenny to Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.

While this story may seem like a modern-day fairytale, it is in fact very true and brought a very real sense of joy to a very deserving and faithful woman. It shows how neighbors do care and do matter and how a simple “thank you” can make such a difference.

Shortly after receiving the surprise flowers, Miss Jenny spoke of how she bought raffle tickets through Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Brigid as well as the Grunwald (Polish) Club and other locations. “I’ve never even won $25,” she said, “but knowing how everyone voted for me to get these flowers and reading what everyone said is worth so much more to me.”

To see a video of Miss Jenny receiving her flowers, visit:

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | August 31, 2011

The man behind the clerics

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, a former U.S. Army chaplain and former head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, certainly can come across as a no-nonsense, “get to the point,” efficient sort of gentleman.

But as my coworker George Matysek pointed out in a recent blog, the priest of 46 years also has a humorous side. Even during the press conference announcing his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI to Pro-Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, he concluded his speech by looking to the room full of reporters and quipping “Alright, if there are no questions, I’ll leave.”

What I have witnessed of Archbishop O’Brien during his brief tenure in the Premier See, in addition to decisiveness and a no-nonsense approach, are warmth and compassion.

Whether it’s the direct eye contact and warm handshake he offers as he makes a point to meet as many as he can in a room, or the kindness of extending personal phone calls, as he did to all his secretaries before making his new appointment public, he has a way of making people feel important and valued.

When he said at his Aug. 29 press conference, “It is with a heavy heart I will be departing the Premier See of the United States,” I believed him.

The archbishop has been a proponent of the work of Catholic Charities, which has some 80 programs in Maryland, since his arrival. I appreciate how during his press conference, he took the time to speak of the agency.

“I’m just sometimes curious and disappointed that Catholic Charities does not get more attention,” he said. “It’s the largest social service provider in Maryland, over 80 programs – quite substantial. We know some of them obviously in Our Daily Bread, but there are many others – touching people, reaching people and lifting people up ( in a way that) no other institution in the state is doing or even can do.”

The archbishop has been a strong supporter of The Catholic Review as well, attending numerous meetings and working to help create a strategic plan for the organization.

I have received two handwritten notes from the archbishop, both of which were tremendously kind, and one of which I carry with me in my appointment book.

I had made the archbishop chocolate chip cookies, which I heard were a favorite of his.

The note read:

“Dear Jennifer,

The chocolate chip cookies are gone, but not forgotten. They were the best – so good, in fact, that I ‘forgot’ to share them with Father Adam! Thank you for your thoughtfulness and thank you for your impressive commitment to our Catholic Review.

In the Lord,

+Edwin O’Brien”

I know everyone will have different impressions, but this is how I will remember the 15th archbishop of Baltimore.

P.S. More cookies coming soon, Archbishop O’Brien!

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | May 13, 2011

It’s the little things

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien is a man who carries much responsibility on his shoulders. He oversees an archdiocese encompassing nine counties and Baltimore City. He tends to a flock that worships in some 150 parishes. Yet in the midst of focusing on the future of Catholic schools, immigration rights, preventing sexual abuse and encouraging more vocations to the church, the priest of nearly 46 years paused during a Catholic Review board meeting last month to inquire, “Where is Pat Richardson?”

The friendly office manager of 16 years was, as it turns out, at the home of her parents recuperating from major back surgery.

The archbishop could have let that answer suffice and gone about his day. Instead, the former military chaplain obtained the number to Pat’s parents and personally called to extend his wishes for a safe and quick recovery to the well-liked Catholic Review employee.

When Pat returned to the office this week, she was clearly tickled pink over the phone call.

As I caught up with the archbishop during a luncheon for the Women’s Alliance of Partners in Excellence May 11, I told him how nice it was that he took the time to make that call.

“A phone call is a small thing, but it can mean so much,” he said.

I have since learned that the archbishop also called another longtime employee who was fighting cancer. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” he said.

In a world consumed by technology, it’s nice to have a “boss” who finds the time to make those important calls.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien (CR file)

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | April 21, 2011

Power of Facebook

Mr. Ted and his son-in-law enjoy Opening Day, April 4, 2011.


More than 20 years ago (I know I am totally aging myself here), I attended St. Stephen School in the quiet town of Bradshaw. I remember plenty from those days, such as the large walk-in refrigerator where the daily cartons of milk for students were stored. My fellow classmates and I used to “play dead” or try to scare one another as we counted out and distributed the milk for lunches. I remember eighth-grade flag duty, where we tried to fold the flag just so. I also recall clapping erasers, carrying the nuns’ briefcases to and from the convent and the girls spending a minimum of 20 minutes in the bathroom before school spraying our bangs with hairspray. Gym class, Christmas bazaars and school carnivals where we tried to win goldfish also bring back memories.

What’s great to know is that with the advent of Facebook, I can still stay in touch with some of my classmates from back then.

I was reminded of the interconnectedness of Facebook on April 4, opening day for the Orioles, when sitting in the row in front of me, I spotted “Mr. Ted,” our school custodian, who is now in his 80s.

I posted a picture of him sitting next to his son-in-law on Facebook, and within minutes was getting comments from former classmates who were happy to see the picture of the well-liked school employee.

It’s nice to know that modern-day technology can offer such great links to our past.

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | March 11, 2011

And that has made all the difference

People often paint a bleak picture of Baltimore City. And, quite frankly, there are plenty of sad and disturbing stories to go around. Take my friend, who worked as a social worker for Baltimore City children in foster care. She would conduct home visits with parents interested in getting their children back. She spoke of apartments crawling with cockroaches, overflowing toilets not even hooked up, pet feces littering the floor and cases where parents admitted to not taking their medication. My friend would help these individuals outline the steps they would need to take to get their children back. In the midst of this, she had foster children tell her they had been abused or went without food.

But even in the bleakest of situations, light shines through. My friend treasures the hand-drawn cards from foster children she helped.

One such light in Baltimore City is Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on Chester Street in Fells Point. I have previously written about Cristo Rey student Arthur Williams.

In 2009, he was one of two sophomores chosen to meet personally with Bill Cosby.

When asked if this was one of the highlights of his life, the then 15-year-old responded, “No.”

Taken aback, I remember asking, “Well then what is?”

“Seeing my mother get clean,” he responded. “Meeting Bill Cosby was a great opportunity and affected my life, but seeing my mother stop using was much more crucial.”

Arthur, a resident of Boys Hope Girls Hope in Baltimore, is an example of what is possible with inner determination coupled with a quality education and a supportive home environment. According to the Boys Hope Girls Hope website (, Arthur is now a Cristo Rey senior who has a corporate internship with Under Armour and plans to apply to Loyola University, Gettysburg and Moravian College.

In a story which will run March 17 in The Catholic Review, writer Matt Palmer interviewed another Cristo Rey senior, Chris Ellis. Cornelia Ellis, Chris’ adoptive mother, spoke of how proud she is of her son, but fretted that she didn’t make enough money to give her son the education and things he deserves.

She said her son simply tells her, “I’m going to do the best I can with what I got.”

“I’ve grown as a person here, both mentally and physically,” Chris said of Cristo Rey. “I’m different now.”

These young men were on a path that led them to places like Cristo Rey and Boys Hope Girls Hope. It’s this difference that helps shine a light on Baltimore.

Chris Ellis, a senior at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and his mother Cornelia, attend the school’s “100 days until graduation” meeting March 8.

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | February 24, 2011

No free time in retirement

Charlestown residents are on the go!

In May of 2000, I interviewed the now deceased Father Bernard S. Bak about his role as a retired priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“Retired? You mean re-hired!” quipped the then 78-year-old priest.

The clergyman’s point was that even in retirement, he was as busy as ever, celebrating Masses, visiting the sick and performing other priestly duties.

This week I had a delightful visit to Charlestown, a retirement community in Catonsville, which brought to mind the priest’s point. While chatting with a group of six Catholic Charlestown residents, I was quickly informed that the some 2,000 residents there, although mostly retired, certainly do not have “lots of free time.”

“If you ask anyone to do something, they’re going to do this,” said one woman, as she pulled a leather-bound appointment book from her bag to check her schedule.

The group of seniors informed me that at Charlestown, where the average age of residents is in the mid-80s, there are more than 380 organizations, “and everybody belongs to at least six.”

From the golf club to donating time and goods for the quarterly “treasure sale,” seniors at Charlestown are on the go. They take time to volunteer in the Care Center, engage in athletic activities and enroll in a variety of classes. They make casseroles for Our Daily Bread, support scholarships for young people, sing in the choir and volunteer in the on-campus television studio.

As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who resigned at age 90, said, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”

Posted by: Jennifer Williams | December 14, 2010

A great man

Ten years ago, I interviewed a young man whose story left an indelible mark on my heart.

Twenty-four year old Cesar Humberto Zarate had lost his right leg, above the knee, in a landmine incident in Peru, while fighting for his country. The Peruvian Army sent Cesar and two of his injured comrades to the world renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to receive prosthesis.

While this type of injury could have devastated any active twenty-something, what I saw was a sweet, witty 24-year-old who handled a life-changing accident with humor and grace.

At the time, he told me, “There are two ways you could approach this. You could feel sorry for yourself and have people say, ‘pobrecito,’ (you poor thing), or you could work, have fun and learn to walk and have people say ‘ Ese hombre grande’ (That is a great man).”

The lives of Cesar and his comrades were certainly different and filled with challenges after the accident, but the three men were driven by family and ultimately, their Catholic faith. I was 23 at the time I conducted the interview, and I remember being inspired by the overwhelming and deep faith of these men. No self-pity or complaining – only faith.

“I think my accident is a test that God has given me in order to continue my life and to keep loving him,” Cesar said. “Because I love him very much.”

That was 10 years ago. Today, Cesar is 34 and back home in Peru, where he seems to be living a happy life. I know this because after 10 years, he found me on Facebook. We are communicating in broken English and Spanish, but what a lovely friendship to form at a Christmas, and what a timely reminder to be thankful for all the blessings in our lives.


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