Joan Epstein, mom of TV star Kathie Lee Gifford, dies in Annapolis at 87

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Joan Epstein, an Annapolis resident and the mother of television personality Kathie Lee Gifford,

Joan Epstein, an Annapolis resident and the mother of television personality Kathie Lee Gifford, passed away on Tuesday. She was 87 and had been living at the BayWoods senior living community in Annapolis since 2002.

Gifford, 64, announced her mother’s passing via Twitter on Tuesday night, writing “My precious mother, Joannie went home to Jesus & my daddy this morning. We praise God for His promise of eternal life & we thank God for her.”

Gifford, who grew up in Bowie and graduated from Bowie High School in 1971, delivered an emotional tribute to her mother during her regular appearance on the “Today” show Wednesday.

“It’s Wednesday, it’s Sept. 13 … She's already had one day in heaven,” Gifford said.

Gifford’s father, Aaron Epstein, passed away in 2002, shortly before he and his wife were scheduled to move to Annapolis. They were living in Gambrills at the time. The family lived in Bowie from 1961 to 1997, according to son-in-law Craig Mader. Mader is married to Epstein’s younger daughter, Michelle.

Epstein also had a son, David Epstein, who is the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in New York. All three children attended Bowie High School.

Gifford said on camera that she was happy that her father and mother were able to be together again.

“Now they're joined,” she said. “My mom's been missing him so much …”

Two things stood out to those who knew Epstein – her sense of humor and her strong faith.

During her daughter’s television career, Epstein was a frequent guest on either “Regis & Kathie Lee” or “Today,” popping in to share some recipes or parenting tips and cutting up with Kathie Lee and whoever happened to be sharing the stage with her.

Epstein had a gift, Gifford explained, for malapropims – misusing words to comedic effect – on the air. One time, when the two were about to go on camera, she asked, “Is this going on high-dimentia TV?”

Another time, she was sharing a recipe on the air and made reference to “the tasty mortals” – instead of “morsels” - that she had prepared. Everyone on the set nearly died laughing.

“When she came in, humor followed,” noted Hada Kotb, Gifford’s co-host for the fourth hour of “Today.”

Gifford said that she always called her mom at about 9 every morning and chatted with her for about half an hour, right before she would go on the air. Usually, they talked about what mom had for breakfast that morning and Gifford would always try to to get her to laugh.

One time, Epstein boasted about the healthy breakfast she’d had and Kathie Lee responded by saying how pleased she was that her mom was taking care of herself.

“It’s important to stay healthy when you’re dying,” Epstein countered.

Gifford also spoke of her mother’s religious beliefs, saying, “My mom had no fear. She had the strongest faith of anyone I've ever known.”

She was in high demand as a speaker for Christian women’s clubs through the years and organized a long-running Bible study class at BayWoods, Mader said.

“She was a woman of very strong faith, no doubt about it,” he said. “She taught many and counseled many over the years. She had a real special ministry with women.”

That Epstein was able to maintain her sense of humor and her faith was remarkable, considering the difficult childhood she endured – one that seemed to come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.

Epstein was born in Brooklyn in 1930, but her mother died when she was two. After her family moved to Washington, D.C., her brother Alfred passed away and her father became an alcoholic. She was sent to live with her grandparents, but they, too, passed away while she was still a child. She essentially was an orphan by the time she was a teenager and had to quit school to go to work.

Because of her typing skills, she eventually landed a job as a secretary in the Office of Naval Research, where she met a Navy petty officer named Aaron Epstein, who became her husband. The couple was married in 1949 at St. Andrew’s chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The Epsteins moved all around during the 1950s because of Aaron’s military service, spending time in Europe (Kathie Lee was born in France). They eventually settled in Bowie – in the Somerset section, the first one completed by developer William Levitt.

There, the Epsteins raised their three children. The difficulty of her early life never seemed to touch her or her offspring. She never seemed to dwell on the things that had gone wrong in her life, according to her daughter. Instead, she always chose to stay positive.

“She always remembered what she had,” Gifford said.

Joan Epstein, mom of TV star Kathie Lee Gifford, dies in Annapolis at 87

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