Following a short illness, Margot J. Kelly died at age 96, Sept. 2, 2021. While gardening she had been bitten by a mosquito infected with the West Nile Virus that caused her death.
Margot was born Oct. 10, 1924, to Alfred and Else Sternagel in Dusseldorf, Germany. During a childhood she considered “idyllic,” she frequently accompanied her parents on trips through Central Europe where she was introduced to theatre, art, grand opera, and alpine hiking and skiing - all of which were to become lifelong interests. In 1934 the family moved to the Templelhof Airport neighborhood in Berlin. There Margot enrolled in an excellent Lycée school where she studied French and English language but witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and, beginning in 1939, experienced the terrors and deprivations of World War ll.
By the time she graduated in 1943 Germany was losing the war and Allied bombing resulted in daily use of air raid shelters, food rationing, and mass destruction of infrastructure and buildings in Berlin. Citizens’ fears worsened in 1945 when Soviet soldiers captured the city. Margot was quickly assigned to a street work gang clearing rubble from the streets. The attractive fraulein learned to avoid personal harm by using “survival skills” including no make-up and plain clothing. She, her family, and neighborhood were saved when Americans took over the airport sector when Berlin was divided up. Her mastery of English, organizational skills, and work ethic became obvious to the U.S. Army Air Corps which in 1945 hired her to work as their airport translator and travel coordinator for officers and celebrities using the airport. That job was followed by others at American Oversea Airlines and the nascent International New York Herald Tribune.
By 1950 the 26-year-old Margot was looking for a new start and relief from war-weary Europe and managed to obtain a coveted job at West Germany’s new diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. The day she arrived at Du Pont Circle the weather was sunny and warm, and her first job at what would become the new West Germany Embassy was to attend the cocktail party given by her boss for American diplomats. She couldn’t believe her good fortune, and fell in love with her new city.
In 1959 Margot bought her first house through Washington, D.C. Realtor Millicent Chatel. When Chatel offered her an internship she agreed, and with an uncanny eye for a property’s potential, attention to details, unflinching honesty, and hard work ethic, Margot became immediately successful. In 1967 she struck out on her own, bought an old historic but run-down Capitol Hill house on A St, SE which would become her home for life, and immersed herself in reconstructing the dilapidated, blighted, and mostly empty blocks near the Marine Barracks on 8th St. SE. Margot’s modus operandi was to buy, then meticulously remodel, architecturally interesting properties - one after another - and rent them to tenants who would uplift the neighborhood.
While these formed the nucleus of the new community, she encouraged other potential investors and retail business owners, local churches, and even the Shakespeare Theater to join her in the over-all rehabilitation. In the early 1990s Margot established the Marine Barracks Business Alliance - collecting dues from businesses to support local beautification and other projects. She and others worked tirelessly with local police, politicians, and other activists - such as the Community Action Group - to beauty the neighborhoods. Restaurants and retail outlet businesses poured in, and her efforts led to Eighth Street receiving Federal Main Street funding in 1998, and in 1999 to her receiving a Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award for her service - a fitting award for the de-facto mayor of Eighth Street.
Though these many years and to the very end, Margot enjoyed a private life that included a wide diversity of friends and activities. She was friends and the confidant of French premiers, U.S. Supreme Court justices, congressmen and international diplomats, local police and military officers, and with her neighbors in Capitol Hill. With them all she played poker, enjoyed major league baseball and football games, skied the Alps, attended theatre (especially Arena Stage - where for years she was on the board of directors) and grand opera. Margot was a worldwide traveler, and went to both the Soviet Union and China before they became tourist destinations. She refreshed herself for two weeks every year at her Black Forest spa in Germany, and loved attending and giving cocktail and dinner parties where she was expert at telling stories - with an accent that charmed. Over the last 40 years she spent many weekend and holiday times in her lovely home in Rehoboth Beach. She travelled and socialized with her book club friends, worked each year on the local elections, supported the Rehoboth Art League and the Rehoboth Beach Film Society Cinema Art Theater, strolled the Boardwalk and dined at her favorite restaurants.
Nor did marriage escape her. In 1963 she married Fred C Kelly Jr., a retired engineer and technical writer, and became a surrogate mother for his two young daughters. Despite an eventual divorce, she and her stepdaughters remained close and Margot is survived by them - Cassandra Spector and Michele Kelly, and their daughters - Alice and Simone L. Spector, and Faye and Mary Cuneo.
Margot’s was an immigrant success story. She not only made a new life in Washington, but paid back that city and the country she loved by enriching both while remaining true to her values.
A private interment was held at Epworth Cemetery in Rehoboth Beach, and there will be a Celebration of her Life at The Arena Stage Wednesday, Oct. 27.
In lieu of flowers, her family requests that donations be made in Margot’s name to: Capitol Hill Village (capitolhillvillage.org) and to The Rehoboth Art League (firstname.lastname@example.org).