More unassuming heroes occupy sisters' old shop

THE OBSERVER

June 28, 1992|By Mark Guidera

At age 73, Bessie Urban Mitchell still had the tough edge of the sharp businesswoman she'd always been. She ran her gun and sporting goods shop, the Sportsman's Center on Legion Drive in Havre de Grace, with an acumen for making a profit.

"You might say she was cruel with her money," joked her nephew, Gordon Mitchell.

Her sister, Emily Urban Hamby, 75, could be found every day at the store too. But she wasn't one to fuss over money or business. She preferred playing with the store mascot, a black kitten, and gossiping with Bessie. Enticing customers with the latest store merchandise wasn't her concern.

The sisters lived the quiet, respectable lives that didn't get them called down to city hall for a proclamation or their picture in the local newspapers, but sent ripples of endearment to those that crossed their path day in, day out.

They were heroes in the uneventful way, living well-intentioned lives.

Of course, the sisters' names did land in the paper one black day in October 1991 when they were found shot to death in their store.

There was nothing but evil and dread about the killings, a hexed stain that it seemed would blot the store building for years.

But life, of course, is full of serendipity, and so it was last week that a band of other unassuming heroes took up residence in Bessie and Emily's former shop.

On Wednesday, the Lutheran Mission Society, which operates what it calls "compassion centers" for the poor, cleansed the stain of murder from the building's walls with prayers and spiritual songs during a dedication ceremony.

Then they got down to work.

"The first thing a lot of people who walk in the center ask is 'Where'd they get shot?, ' " Steven Alms, director of development for the society, said as visitors milled about the store Wednesday after a dedication ceremony for the new center's quarters.

"We tell them we don't know where they got shot, and then ask 'How can we help you?' Our focus in this center is going to be turning people's lives around. We want to help them become productive members of society."

Stephanie Boddie, coordinator of the center, was excited about the prospects of the new site for her work. For one, it is closer to the low-income neighborhoods of the city where poverty, hopelessness and drugs can be seen every day.

"I've noticed the number of people coming through here has doubled," said Boddie, still flush from singing the Lord's Prayer at the dedication ceremony.

The compassion center has a store, where those on tight budgets can buy clothes, furniture, kitchen items, toys, and even low-cost food. There's also a sitting area where the unemployed, homeless or aimless can just come in and sit a spell to get out of bad weather.

The most popular service, says Boddie, is companionship.

"A lot of people just come in to talk. They want someone to listen, to take an interest in them. You'd be amazed at the number of people out there who just need someone to talk to."

Darlene Webster, a separated mother with four children still in her house, never had occasion or need to set foot into the Sportsman's Center in Havre de Grace while it was in business.

But last week she was in the building, with two of her children in tow, hunting for $1 bargains on clothes for the kids.

"This place helps me with my budget," said Darlene, who is studying to be a cosmetologist. "The thing I like about this place is they work with you. If you don't have enough money, but really need something, they work it out. With four kids to raise, and my husband separated from me, I need some help with my budget."

Watching Darlene smile as she hoists her sleepy, young son Richard high and finds another bargain on the clothes rack, you get the feeling Bessie and Emily would have been pleased to see their store become a haven for the struggling heroes among us.

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