Gilchrest always does things his own way

October 31, 1990|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

The improbable political career of Wayne Gilchrest began in October 1987 while he was painting the house of former Chicago Cubs baseball player Bill Nicholson in Chestertown.

"Mr. Bill, I'm going down to Annapolis to file for Congress," Gilchrest said to Nicholson.

"Take your time," the affable older man responded.

Still in his painting clothes, Gilchrest drove to the state Board of Elections. The clerk told him he needed $100 to file, which he didn't have. "She was very nice," he says. "She let me fill out all the forms with only $25."

The news startled his wife, Barbara, who objected to spending so much money. "I had heard him mention he'd like to be a congressman, but I just thought he was talking," she says. But she gave him the checkbook and he paid the $75 balance, making it official: Wayne Thomas Gilchrest, 41, career teacher and part-time house painter, was a Republican candidate for the 1st District seat held by veteran Democratic Rep. Roy P. Dyson.

Gilchrest went on to defeat his only Republican opponent in March 1988 and lost by just 1,500 votes to Dyson that November. He beat seven Republicans in this year's primary to earn a rematch. No longer an unknown, Gilchrest is even money to win Tuesday, most polls show.

"I think he's as surprised as I am that it's come to this," Gilchrest's wife says.

If he wins, Gilchrest surely will be compared to the idealistic but naive new senator played by Jimmy Stewart in the film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

He is down to earth, with a wry sense of humor and a low-key, low-cost lifestyle that revolves around his family. He plays the piano at Kennedyville Methodist Church, drives a six-year-old Plymouth Horizon and wishes it were possible to live life without television, preferably in the wilderness.

For a meal, he suggests going to the McCrory's five-and-dime. When there are no chairs for an interview, he sits cross-legged on the floor. He wears suits as needed, but is happier in hiking clothes.


This public service philosophy sounds like it comes from the movie, though it actually came from a teacher long ago:

"He said your life doesn't count unless the world is a better place because you passed through it," Gilchrest says. "No, I don't become fanatic about it. But I think it's a reasonable thing to think about."

If there are skeletons in his past, no one has found them. Not so much as a speeding ticket showed up in a review of state motor vehicle and county court records.

To his supporters, Gilchrest is a wholesome counterpoint to Dyson, a scandal-tarred incumbent.

"The hardest thing to get people to believe is that Wayne is what he is," says Emmett Duke, a Gilchrest campaign aide and friend who met him while they served on the board of Kent Youth Inc., a residential program for troubled youths. "They're not used to that in a politician."

The Gilchrests -- Wayne, Barbara and their three school-age children -- live in a rented farm house at the end of a long unpaved road in tiny Kennedyville, Kent County, surrounded by cornfields. Chickens and an inquisitive collie patrol outside the house, which dates to the 1700's and is heated, barely, with a wood stove.

It's easy to spot because Gilchrest impetuously painted the kitchen annex red, leaving the rest of the house white. Mrs. Gilchrest tells this story with the same good humor she describes other things that have made her, and their friends, expect the unexpected from her husband.

"Wayne has always done different things," she says.


Gilchrest was born in Rahway, N.J., in 1946, a year after World War II ended. His father had served in the Navy and in 1964, the teen-aged Gilchrest joined the Marines. Two years later,

Gilchrest was sent to Vietnam, where he served until 1967 when he was shot in the chest in an action that earned him a Bronze Star.

He was with Echo Company in the mountains near Laos when a force of North Vietnamese overran the Marine position during the night. In the morning, 21-year-old Gilchrest ventured out with two other Marines and encountered about 15 enemy soldiers firing at American helicopters from a ditch.

The Bronze Star citation describes what happened next:

"Skillfully maneuvering his men toward the enemy, Sgt. Gilchrest boldly drew the attention of the enemy in order to pinpoint their location. As the enemy stood up to fire, [he] delivered a burst of deadly accurate automatic weapons fire and killed three enemy soldiers before he was seriously wounded himself."

The award cites him for "heroic achievement" for that action and for directing his men during fighting the night before, "unhesitatingly exposing himself to intense automatic enemy weapons fire and exploding hand grenades."

Gilchrest recovered in the United States and stayed in the Marines until 1968. During his service career, he also won a Purple Heart and the Navy Commendation medal.

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