Chestnut Hill matriarch Jean Hemphill dies at 97


Jean Cálves Hemphill, who raised eight children in Chestnut Hill as the wife of the late city controller Alexander Hemphill, died Jan. 23 outside Oxford, MD, where she had made her home since the mid-1980s. She was 97. 

Born in Philadelphia to Herbert E. Cálves, a civil engineer, and the former Elizabeth Casanave, Hemphill was raised in Center City and moved to West Chester as a teenager. After attending Friends Select School in Philadelphia and the Westtown School, she graduated from Oldfields School in Maryland and the University of Pennsylvania.

She first met Hemphill at a high school dance at age 14 and they were immediately smitten with each other, eventually marrying just after World War II, while Hemphill was still in the Navy. They settled in Chestnut Hill, raising a family of seven girls and a boy while Hemphill went to law school and entered Democratic politics, winning a race for city controller in 1957. He was re-elected twice before resigning to run unsuccessfully for mayor in 1967.   

“Our mother was very enthusiastic and supportive of his political career,” said their eldest daughter, Pricie Hanna of West Chester. “Once we were old enough to stay home alone, my parents were out together every night during the campaign season, going to ward meetings and other functions. I remember, because I was serving chicken pot pies to all the kids at home.”

Mrs. Hemphill didn’t give speeches, but she became a Democratic committeewoman and gave her husband “a lot of private advice,” Hanna said. At public appearances, “she stood in the background and gave him a signal when it was time to stop talking.”

The whole family was enlisted to pose for campaign photos and at Democratic Party picnics, for which the mother dressed all the girls in matching outfits that were passed down interminably, it seemed, as the girls grew older.

Jean Hemphill made no secret that she didn’t like to cook, but she was persuaded to submit a recipe for “Easy Oven-Baked Chicken” for the Chestnut Hill Cookbook, published in 1986 by the Chestnut Hill Senior Services Center. The ingredients: chicken pieces, chopped onions, a sprinkling of herbs and catsup, to be served with a white Bordeaux.  

To help support the family after Hemphill gave up his job as city controller, Jean Hemphill went back to school to earn certification as a Montessori teacher and joined a group of parents to establish the Waverly Children’s House in Glenside.

After Alec Hemphill lost the 1967 mayoral primary election to incumbent James Tate, he developed a private law practice and the couple indulged a longtime love of sailing. Typically they would spend summer weekends taking a sailboat from Maryland to New England, anchoring somewhere near an Amtrak station so Alec could return to work for the week while Jean stayed on the boat.

In 1981 they purchased a waterfront cottage on Island Creek, outside Oxford, MD.  It became Jean Hemphill’s permanent home after her husband died in 1986.

She is survived by six of her daughters – Pricie, Elizabeth Burns of Mt. Airy, Jean Hemphill of Chestnut Hill, Rebecca Firth of Trappe MD, Louisa Zendt of Oxford and Theresa Hemphill of Delhaven NJ – and her son, Alexander, known as Sander, who lives in Barefoot Bay, FL.  Another daughter, Dallett Hemphill, died in 2015. Her other survivors include a brother, Robert Cálves of Irvington, VA, as well as 18 grandchildren and 12 grandchildren.

The family plans to schedule a memorial service in the spring.