For laid-off executive, there's reason to be thankful Annapolis family counts its blessings

November 29, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Nothing about John and Louise Hammond's Thanksgiving was much different this year. The turkey was fresh from a Pennsylvania farm -- a 21-pounder roasted to a golden brown. Plates heaped high with boiled sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans with ham and fragrant corn bread stuffing once again graced a bountiful dinner table.

Their three-bedroom cedar-shingled house was cleansed and scrubbed meticulously -- the half-dozen guests included Mrs. Hammond's mother Ginny May, so neatness counted even more than usual.

All in all, the cozy Annapolis home reflected the prosperity that Mr. Hammond's career in banking and insurance had provided his family for two decades. Every room has been remodeled since they bought the house 17 years ago. The landscaping and brick walkways they have added are lovely, so is the swimming pool out back.

A stranger visiting the household would scarcely have realized that Mr. Hammond was a victim of the nation's sagging economy. Since the end of August he has been unemployed, laid off from his executive position with USF&G Corp. in Baltimore.

"Here I am in my early 40s at a time when you're supposed to be acquiring some wealth," said Mr. Hammond, 43. "I've got kids with college coming up. Then I'm supposed to be looking at retirement. Now, there's a hole to plug up and I have to start anew. That's disconcerting."

According to statistics, Maryland's white-collar workers have taken an unusually big hit in the ongoing recession. In the finance, insurance and real estate fields -- a sector of the economy that had shown steady growth in the 1980s -- the number of jobs actually fell over the past year while the overall work force grew.

Mr. Hammond worked for USF&G for 7 1/2 years, primarily as a lobbyist. He is one of 2,700 people who lost their jobs with the insurance firm this year as the company has undergone a restructuring.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, he earned a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business -- credentials that one doesn't expect to find on the unemployment line.

But then again, who would have expected to find an elected public official there either? Since 1977, Mr. Hammond has served as an alderman on the Annapolis City Council. A staunch conservative, he heads the council's finance committee and in 1982 was the Republican nominee for county executive in Anne Arundel County.

The irony of that is not lost on the Hammonds, who appreciate the check for $230 they receive every two weeks (Annapolis aldermen earn $8,500 annually), but it doesn't come close to maintaining an upper-middle-class lifestyle for a family of four.

A "generous" severance plan from USF&G has kept them comfortable, however, and they are more inclined to laugh about their misfortune than worry. There are still shopping trips to Nordstrom and fashionable White Flint Mall in Rockville.

The couple's daughter, Hunter, 13, and 10-year-old son, Kemp, seem to have also taken the transition in stride. About the only time the situation has come up, Mrs. Hammond jokes, is when the children have to figure out what to put in the "father's profession" line on school forms.

"The only difference is that he's home all the time," said Hunter, an eighth-grader at Bates Middle School and budding politician who wants to be president some day. "It's no big deal."

In some ways, Mr. Hammond's layoff was a relief for the family. He had been transferred recently to a different division within the company and was experiencing conflicts with his new boss.

"There wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't ready for him to call and say he lost his job," Mrs. Hammond said. "He wasn't worried. I was."

Nevertheless, a Thanksgiving for 10 at the Hammonds' is nothing if not a cheery experience, and their midafternoon meal was lavish. It was served on the family's French china and silver service with fresh cut daisies and tulips in the centerpiece.

Should they be cutting back? Is there a point at which the budget will start to become tight? The family hasn't faced those questions. They are confident a job will be found soon.

"I'm too optimistic to think that way," Mr. Hammond said. "I'm optimistic that I'll be gainfully employed shortly. It's just a hiccup. It's been a great extended vacation."

Since losing his job, Mr. Hammond said he has spent much of his time circulating letters and resumes and has at least one "hot" prospect. He has also spent more time in City Hall, tending to his duties as an alderman for the city's 1st Ward.

Although he has never laid off a city worker, he still believes that such an option should be available if tax revenues decline. He is adamant about such things as government waste and high taxes and won't abandon his hard-nosed principles.

"This has been a temporary predicament for me," Mr. Hammond insists. "I hope it hasn't substantially changed my perspective."

Still, he has too many friends from USF&G who are unemployed to take the recession lightly. A neighbor across the street lost his job not too long ago because his business went under.

"Compared to the recession in 1982 -- at least from my perspective -- this is just much more pervasive," Mr. Hammond said. "Things were good for so long, the downturn had to be an extended one."

But even in that climate, the Hammonds count their blessings. They are especially grateful during this Thanksgiving of 1991 to have two healthy children.

.` The rest seems less important.

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