It's all work for plenty of play in Chestertown

November 05, 1990|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHESTERTOWN -- These days, when Colin Dickson hammers, he's usually pounding the beauty of French language and literature into an undergraduate's brain. But this weekend, the Washington College professor tried his hand at the real thing.

Along with several hundred drill-wielding, shovel-toting, hoe-hauling volunteers, Mr. Dickson helped build a playground for his community.

"Usually, I spend Saturdays at the Farmers' Market or tidying up or reading a book on the French Renaissance," said Mr. Dickson, a canvas worker's apron slung round his waist and a carpenter's ruler in his back pocket. "But this is a wonderful community project."

The project was the creation of a playground behind Chestertown's Garnett Elementary School. Parents, teachers and students -- who worked with playground designer Robert Leathers of Ithaca, N.Y. -- designed the site, raised money for construction and built the playground in a five-day marathon that ended last night.

Mr. Dickson, who spent the hottest Nov. 3 on record driving nails into wooden beams, worked alongside judges, surgeons, salesmen and housewives. There were pre-teens and retirees, the well-to-do and wanna-bes, people of all colors, sexes and social backgrounds.

It was a community effort that many said put this tiny Eastern Shore town in touch with itself.

That's because the playground committee solicited supplies from local businesses, recruited help from civic groups, churches and schools, played politics with the local Board of Education and county commissioners, and raised $80,000 in cash.

"If not one kid ever played in this playground, it would have been worth it -- because it brought the community together," said Mary Lee Creager, a Spanish teacher. She co-chaired the project.

"Our biggest challenge was to convince people that a community of many diverse elements could come together for a common good."

Ms. Creager, a silver-haired woman with a 6-year-old son, signed on with the project in September 1989, when she was drafted to chair the PTA playground committee. The play area behind the )) boxy, red-brick elementary school was a disaster: The ground sloped, the site flooded, and the equipment was obsolete.

"Our main goal was to get a state-of-the art playground and to involve the entire community," she explained. "And this was an ++ inspired location. On one side is a predominantly black residential neighborhood, and on the other side is a predominantly white residential neighborhood."

The playground committee found its way to Mr. Leathers, an architect who has helped build community playgrounds for 20 years. Mr. Leathers and his staff teach communities how to design the space, raise money for the project and build the playground.

Not surprisingly, each Leathers project is unique -- but similar.

"It's the snowflake effect," said Phil Tomlinson, an independent contractor and playground consultant. "They're all different, but they are all the same.

"This one has a great design, and it suits the community very well. It's a nice cross-section of people here, and it's a sure sign RTC the playground is at the right place when you get a turnout like this."

While Mr. Tomlinson chatted, whirs, buzzes, screeches and bangs filled the air around him. To build each portion of a wooden deck, 16 different crews cut, carried, drilled, hammered and sandpapered. The outline had taken shape by Saturday morning, but specific play areas -- the monster maze, dolphin slide, totem pole, crab sandbox -- had not emerged.

What's more, some folks didn't even know exactly what they were building.

"I don't know what this is going to be. I just go around and see what needs drilling," said Melissa McGlynn, a fine arts graduate student who had just finished engaging a wooden beam with an electric drill. "This has been an amazing experience; it reminds me of the barn-raising scene in [the movie] 'Witness.' Everybody's here because they want to help."

For many, helping also meant learning: Both professors and pre-teens discovered penny screws, washers and bits.

Such information was vital to Maren Nicholson, the 11-year-old daughter of playground co-chair Margo Bailey, who doled out supplies to the work crews.

"People come up and say, 'I need a tool bit,' " Maren said with a toss of auburn hair. "I didn't even know such things existed before."

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