Mr. Map, the geography whiz: Don't leave home without him

November 14, 1990

When they call you Mr. Map, you have a reputation to uphold.

"I've never been lost," he says. "I've taken wrong turns, or I haven't been able to find an exact place, but I've never been really lost and not known where I was."

That's because it's Mr. Map's job to know his way around, whether it's on the road or on the phone.

As "Mr. Atlas Map," Marcea Vercer mans a toll-free hot line (1-800-395-GLOBE) started by American Express Travel Related Services this September to meet your pressing geography needs. Don't call if you get lost trying to find that party in a town-house development, though -- Mr. Map is there for kids who can't find that last answer on the geography homework.

He's sort of like Mr. Rogers, but with the global village as his neighborhood.

"I get students asking me what the biggest city in the world is," Mr. Vercer said. (Tokyo-Yokohama.)

Kids, surprisingly, don't use him to do all their homework for them. "Usually, they just have one question, one stumper, that they're having trouble with," Mr. Vercer said. Adults sometimes call to settle bets.

Mr. Vercer, who is available from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, is a 26-year-old professional geographer with a special interest in cartography. That's maps to you.

It was perhaps inevitable that he grew up to become Mr. Map -- his parents named him after a city, Marseilles, with which he shares the pronunciation if not the spelling.

He's from Smyrna, Ga., a city which actress Julia Roberts put on the map, and now lives in that navigational nightmare of Atlanta, where every other street seems to be named a variant of Peachtree.

In the way that other kids become smitten with dinosaurs or ballet, Mr. Vercer took to geography. As a 10-year-old, he would spin his brother's globe, stop it with a finger, then run to the atlas to find out more about that strange and wonderful place beneath his fingertip. Madagascar. The Seychelles. New Zealand.

"I started realizing I wasn't the only person around, and my hometown wasn't the only hometown around," Mr. Vercer said.

He used to accompany his father, an engineer, on business trips and amuse himself by picking up a map of the city and exploring it. On family trips, he fell naturally into the role of navigator.

For all his fascination with geography, though, he initially studied electrical engineering in college. But taking a college geography course rekindled his childhood hobby, and he graduated with a geography degree which ultimately led him to the Mr. Map job.

He collects road maps because "you never know when you might need one," and travels whenever he can. He's also a pilot, and says anyone who is baffled by ground maps should check out aeronautical ones.

Maps have been around nearly forever, he says, and for all the high technology that increasingly surrounds us, they'll never be obsolete but rather become more vital.

"The first map dates back to Mesopotamia, 3800 BC, and it was carved on clay tablets," he said. "But maps are so timely because, with the technology of communications, the world really is becoming a global village," he said. "The necessity of people knowing geography is overwhelming -- businesses are finding they can't remain just local or regional."

Maps fulfill the same function as ever, though: showing where VTC people are, or where they need to go, Mr. Vercer said.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I think maps are where pictures started," he said. "People wanted to say, 'I live here.' Or, 'You can get to a great fishing hole here,' or, 'Go to a great hunting ground here.' "

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