A doll helps spark memories of the real Christmas

DAN RODRICKS

December 22, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

A woman from Hampden, in good ole Baltimore, started telling a story about a doll, and before you could say Christmas, the tale had taken us back a decade to Port Deposit, down to Perry Hall and deep into a well of memories that all involved must be glad they have.

The doll was a soft-sculpture, Cabbage Patch-style thing. Alma Homrighausen bought it from a guy at work. The guy's brother had been unemployed, and his wife had started making the dolls because, as Christmas approached, things were looking grim. She was worried about not having the means to give her three children a happy time. She sold the dolls for $35 each. Alma, being the softy she is, popped for one.

Now we must leave Alma in Hampden, for the time being, and head up Interstate 95. We follow the story all the way to the North East barracks of the state police.

In December 1983, around the time Alma was buying this doll to help one hard-pressed family, the local lodge of the State Troopers Association was fixing to help 20 more.

Every year, the troopers and their wives obtained a list from social service agencies of the neediest families in Harford and Cecil counties. They selected 10 families from each county, determined their needs and tried to meet them by Christmas.

Toys and clothes for the kids, food for the household -- that's what the troopers bought with the money they collected during the year.

This goes on all over the Baltimore area at Christmas. People who work together take up collections, they get names and addresses, and they head out to some of the poorest homes in the rural backstretches of Maryland. Or they travel deep into Baltimore, to neighborhoods most of us never see. It happens every year -- strangers reaching out, knocking on doors, giving, expecting nothing in return.

You wish you could bottle the spirit that makes that happen and give it away.

Up in North East, the troopers and their wives always had gift-wrapping parties. Then, a couple of days before Christmas, one of the men would dress up as Santa and hit the road with

the goodies. Tom Wardrope was Santa a few times. Ray Nizer and Bernie Shaw were involved, too.

In 1983, it was Gary Berge's turn.

It so happens that Gary Berge is Alma Homrighausen's nephew, and that's how the doll got into Santa's bag. Alma knew that a little girl in Port Deposit had asked for one.

The little girl's home was the last stop when Trooper Berge, his wife, his buddies and their wives made their rounds.

The girl was 3 years old. She lived with her young mother and infant sister in a grim little apartment attached to an old liquor store in a shabby part of Port Deposit. Gary Berge went up and knocked on the door.

State troopers see a lot of sadness in their work, but this scene was particularly bleak.

"There was nothing there," Gary recalls. "I mean, it was right sparse. Not a tree. Not a simple decoration. There was barely any furniture in the place. The young woman -- she had the 3-year-old and the infant in her arms -- and she wasn't doing very well. I mean, she was depressed. Her husband had just left her. But she was so thrilled to see us."

"I don't know if she knew we were coming," says Kathy Berge, "but she certainly was glad we were there."

Gary Berge remembers handing Alma's doll to the 3-year-old girl and how excited she was.

"You never forget that," said Tom Wardrope, who should know. "You never forget a little kid clinging to Santa's pants, looking up at you and feeling special."

When he left the grim little apartment in Port Deposit, Gary Berge conferred with the other troopers and their wives. There was still about $26 in the Christmas fund. They drove to Perry Hall and hit the K mart in early evening.

"We explained to the store manager what we were trying to do and he helped us," Kathy says. "And the sales people, even the other customers, started giving us things -- candy and little gifts. We took the tree right off the floor, decorations and all, and Gary went back to that apartment in Port Deposit."

He left the tree and all the extra goodies outside the door.

Gary told his aunt the story later that night. And then he showed her a photograph of the little girl clutching the doll. That Christmas, Alma says, "I felt twice blessed."

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