Mary Helen McConnell Schwarzkopf, MD, 92, pediatrician, wife, mother, mentor and friend to many, died peacefully of congestive heart failure at the Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community in Asheville, NC on Thursday, January 31, 2019.
Mary Helen Schwarzkopf was born in Abingdon, VA on June 11, 1926, the daughter and second child of John Thomas McConnell and Helen Harton McConnell. She lived in Abingdon until the age of three when her family moved to Asheville, NC. She attended first and second grades at Valley Springs School and third grade at the historic Biltmore School and, thereafter, moved to Brevard where her mother taught French at Brevard College. Her family moved to Washington, DC when she was twelve years old, and her brother and only sibling, John Thomas McConnell, Jr died during her first year there, leaving her an only child.
In Washington she attended Gordon Junior High School, Western High School, and earned B.S. and M. D. degrees at George Washington University. She completed her internship at Gallinger Municipal Hospital and the District of Columbia General Hospital and her pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital, Washington, DC and the Bowman Grey School of Medicine at North Carolina Baptist Hospital, Winston-Salem, NC.
She met her future husband, Robert A. Barnett, in medical school. Their marriage in 1948 ended in divorce. Her first and only child, a daughter, Helen Harton McConnell, was born just before her graduation from medical school. In 1971 she married Asheville insurance agent, Ralph H. Schwarzkopf, who predeceased her in 2016 after 45 years of marriage.
Mary Helen Schwarzkopf set her sights high while a teenager in Washington, DC and planned to become a medical doctor—a goal that directed her course until she achieved her desired objective. On September 1, 1955 she opened her pediatrics practice in Asheville, NC in the McGeachy Building in Biltmore Plaza and moved in 1958 to the new Medical-Dental Building at 675 Biltmore Avenue. In the early days of her practice she was one of only four pediatricians in Asheville, all of whose names began with the letter “M”: McAlpine, McGuffin, Metcalf and McConnell!
She loved her work and embraced major responsibilities in the medical community from the outset of her career. Highlights include:
• Involvement in discussions in Buncombe County Medical Society on the treatment of emotional problems of children (1958)
• First Director of the Poison Control Center at Memorial Mission Hospital which provided a complete reference resource on ingredients, symptoms and antidotes for products (1962).
• Committee Chair, Buncombe County Stop Polio Committee—a sugar cube vaccination campaign designed to end the threat of polio in Western North Carolina that was believed to be the largest regional drive in the country (sic Asheville Citizen Times; March-May, 1963).
• Chairman, Stop Measles Committee vaccination program, sponsored by the Buncombe County Medical Society in which two-thirds of the children of susceptible populations received the recently developed Schwarz-strain vaccine (September, 1966).
• Clinical Instructor in Pediatrics, for Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), UNC School of Medicine Family Practice Center, Asheville, NC, and for Family Nurse Practitioner program with clinical rotation through her office (1976-1981).
• Child Medical Examiner, Buncombe County Child Protection Team, for Child Medical Evaluation Program, Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, Chapel Hill, NC (1990).
She retired on August 31st , 1991, exactly 36 years after beginning her private pediatrics practice in Asheville. In retirement she continued to extend her energies to the well-being of children by such activities as participating in an annual “Walk for Children” benefit for Caring for Children, Inc.
Medical memberships included: the American Medical Association, the North Carolina Medical Society, and the North Carolina Pediatric Society. She was Chief of Pediatric Staff of both Memorial Mission Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital and was on the medical staff of both Thoms Rehabilitation Center and Asheville Orthopedic Hospital. She served on the following committees at Memorial Mission and St. Joseph’s Hospitals: Credentials, Medical Administrative, Utilization Review, Education, Library and Public Health.
Volunteer work to benefit the lives of children played a prominent role in Dr. McConnell’s life from the outset of her medical career. When she learned in the 1950’s about the Eliada Home for Children, an orphanage in Asheville, she visited and immediately fell in love with the children there. For nearly four decades she provided pro-bono annual physicals and donated medicines for children at the home who had no medical coverage. For the staff she held annual first aid and wellness sessions and provided physicals to houseparents. According to the
Asheville Citizen-Times (May, 1965), a small boy one day told the clinic nurse, “I want the pretty girl doctor to see me,” and Dr. McConnell was duly flattered.
At Thoms Rehabilitation Center she offered pro-bono medical care to children with disabilities throughout her career. Recognized as an expert on child abuse, she served on the Child Protection Team of the Buncombe County Health Department. Further volunteer work for children included the Family Services Center, Caring for Children, the Irene Wortham Day Care Center, the Buncombe County Association for Retarded Children, the Blue Ridge Mental Health Center and the Buncombe County Medical Society.
In the Asheville community she served as chair of the board of the Asheville Chamber Music Series and also volunteered at the Asheville Community Theater and for the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dr. McConnell’s work was acknowledged by the 1987 Alan-Keith Lucas Friend of Children Award of the North Carolina Child Care Association, given for significant impact on the lives of families and children in the state. She was nominated for this award by the Eliada Home for Children.
On June 26, 2015 Eliada presented her with the Dr. Lucas B. Compton 2015 Founder’s Award in recognition of outstanding commitment to helping children succeed.
In her personal life, Mary Helen Schwarzkopf pursued many varied interests. She was a member of the Arden Presbyterian Church for 64 years. Throughout her career she devoted much of her time off to travel around the globe, fully researching the history, culture, art, music and food of each region she planned to visit. She visited countries that are no longer open to Americans such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
Her greatest passion after retirement was gardening. She landscaped her entire property with rhododendron, helleri holly, boxwood, various mountain species and thousands of bulbs and created an intricate boxwood garden where children loved to run through the maze. She also planted a large-scale vegetable garden and grew many varieties of roses and other flowers.
One of her greatest loves was classical music. She listened to LP records at home from her sizeable music library and attended every classical concert offered in Asheville. She was an avid supporter of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, the Asheville Chamber Music Society and the Swannanoa Chamber Music Society. One of her joys after retirement was to take classes in music history at the College for Seniors at UNC-Asheville where she wrote insightful papers on the masterworks of the great composers. She had a special love for chamber music and became the chair of the Asheville Chamber Music Society and was instrumental in bringing the renowned Amadeus String Quartet to Asheville. Among her favorite composers were Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Schubert and Dvorak.
Her love for fine art was a close second to her love for music. She visited the notable art museums in every world city she visited and studied her favorite artists in depth. Among those artists she most admired and loved were John Constable, Rembrandt, Pieter Breugel, Jan Van Dyke, Vermeer, Murillo, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, the wood carving of Grinling Gibbons and American artists Will Henry Stevens and Sallie Middleton.
An avid photographer, she took thousands of pictures of the countries she visited and was never without her camera at every family or social event to record the happenings for posterity. After retirement, she also purchased the equipment required to cut her own mats and to assemble frames. She loved trying out new recipes, especially preparing the cuisine of a country she had just visited. She mastered the art of baking biscotti and German stollen and prepared Russian and Ukrainian dishes, Italian desserts, Austrian Sachertorte, Swiss raclette and countless other regional foods. She was also a master seamstress and sewed all of the draperies for her home and even upholstered some of the furniture.
She loved the mountains of Western North Carolina and enjoyed nothing more than exploring the most treacherous, winding one-lane roads high up in the hills. She also loved swimming and hiking.
Mary Helen Schwarzkopf is survived by her daughter, Helen H. McConnell of Washington, DC, her stepsons Ralph Schwarzkopf (Christina) of Knoxville, TN and S. Kent Schwarzkopf of Fletcher, NC, her step grandchildren R. Scott Schwarzkopf (Jill) of Arden, NC and Lara Winterberger (Jeff) of Knoxville, TN and four step great grandchildren, Kara and Courtney Black and Mary Rose and Reid Schwarzkopf. Her loving feline companion of more than twenty years, Boots, also survives her and now resides as the “cat of St. Giles Chapel” at Deerfield.
A celebration of Mary Helen’s life followed by a reception will take place on Saturday, February, 16, 2019 at 11:00 am at St. Giles Chapel at Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community, 1617 Hendersonville Road, Asheville, NC 28803. Interment will be private. Groce Funeral Home at Lake Julian, 72 Long Shoals Road, Arden, NC is assisting the family. A memorial guest register is available at www.grocefuneralhome.com
Donations in memory of Mary Helen Schwarzkopf may be directed to Sleep Tight Kids (http://sleeptightkids.org), a charity founded in 2009 by Mary Helen’s step granddaughter, Jill Schwarzkopf, which provides comfort to poor children in more than nine counties in Western North Carolina by providing more than 10,000 nighttime items such as blankets, pajamas, dental care, stuffed animals and clothing. Gifts should be sent to 72 Baldwin Road, Arden, NC 28704. The family wishes to acknowledge the superb care Dr. McConnell received from CarePartners Hospice and from the staff in assisted living at Deerfield. We are forever grateful.