Thanks, George! Blessings on the Washington Monument

R.H. Gardner

November 19, 1992|By R. H. Gardner

ANNOUNCEMENT that the Washington Monument, after hiatus of seven years for repairs, was reopening its doors Dec. 4, started me on a long trail of memories.

It led back to a luncheon meeting in the Park Plaza restaurant with Richard Tucker, then an assistant city editor of The Evening Sun. The meeting had been arranged by the late Dr. Edgar Berman in a friendly attempt to help me switch from selling insurance, which I hated, to writing for a daily paper, which I hoped would be better.

A man whose years in various byways of journalism had soured him on the whole profession, Tucker (no relation to the operatic tenor) seemed astonished at the idea that I wanted to be a reporter. Of course, he'd never had to sell insurance.

"If you really want to get on a newspaper, and," he added with a shudder, "I can't imagine why anyone would, you'll have to do some free-lance stuff first. There are rarely any openings on the daily papers, but the Sunday brown section offers the kind of challenge first-year journalism students have always regarded as good reason to commit suicide. But you'll have to choose your subjects with care. Nothing controversial or vaguely intelligent will serve. What you want is some old man who collects cigar bands."

Since that dim, distant day the character of The Sun's rotogravure section has radically changed. It is no longer brown. It has color. It accepts controversial matter, and the tone of the writing is more sophisticated. But then it was much as Tucker -- who soon after my meeting with him was sent to cover the Korean War and disappeared forever from the local scene -- had described it.

Old-line Maryland in focus. Everything strictly from Dullsville. After studying it for several Sundays, I came up with the perfect topic. It was in fact so perfect that "Fritz" Whitman, the section's leather-elbowed, pipe-smoking editor, couldn't believe it had not already been done and wouldn't buy it until he had checked all the clips in the library.

As all natives are aware, Baltimore is noted for a style of residential architecture known as the "row house." Street after street of these houses, whose sharing of common side walls gives their fronts the effect of one continuous facade, constitutes perhaps the city's most noticeable characteristic. It is traditional for the female inhabitants of these houses to come out in the mornings and wash the steps leading up to the doors.

Next to its row houses, the most distinctive (and, indeed, historic) piece of Baltimore architecture is the Washington Monument that stands in the center of Mount Vernon Place. My article, which appeared in the Dec. 18, 1949, edition of the Sunday Sun, began:

"Baltimore housewives, long accustomed to scrubbing the white steps in front of their homes, should be glad to learn that one of the city's men has a job perhaps 100 times as difficult.

"As custodian of the Washington Monument, Walter M. Turner's duties include cleaning the 228 stone steps leading from the ground floor to the observation room at the top. This task he has performed . . . at least once a week for the last four years. And without a trace of housemaid's knee."

The story, representing my debut as a journalist, was followed by others of equally stimulating subject matter: a Baltimore firm that manufactured lacrosse sticks, a custom pipe-maker, a wig-maker and a school for expectant fathers.

Also included was probably the only legitimate scoop in my entire 33-year newspaper career -- the first piece ever written about the late Howard Head, a former aircraft engineer whose innovations in ski and tennis racket design made him internationally famous, as well as exceedingly rich.

In the 43 years that have elapsed since publication of the story, I have passed the monument many times -- and always with a secret desire to salute. For if it hadn't been for it -- and the man whose accomplishments inspired it -- I might still be in the insurance business.

Thanks, George.

R.H. Gardner is the retired drama critic of The Sun. He writes from Baltimore.

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