Thurmont prepares for discreet presidential watch Residents expect Clinton will visit

January 10, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

THURMONT -- You can almost see it now: A burly man wearing short shorts and a baseball cap jogs past the Cozy Restaurant and out toward McDonald's.

He smiles and waves to the townsfolk, as four or five stone-faced men run in his wake.

This could become a familiar scene in this sleepy Frederick County town once the gregarious Bill Clinton becomes president and begins spending weekends at Camp David.

"Everybody knows he's a people person," says the Rev. Kenneth C. Hamrick of the Thurmont United Methodist Church. "He's not likely going to stay put wherever he goes."

The heavily guarded presidential retreat in Catoctin Mountain National Park is a mere 3 miles from downtown Thurmont. Presidents have holed up in Camp David since 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it his hide away during World War II.

But, according to residents and the town historian, presidents have ventured into Thurmont fewer than 10 times -- not counting simply passing through in a motorcade. Nearly every time, it was to attend church.

Mayor Terry Best hopes the incoming president will be a more outgoing neighbor. The mayor has noticed that the president-elect likes to jog, play golf, shake hands and drop in at McDonald's.

The mayor notes that the Clintons are the youngest first family since the Kennedys. They may be inclined to come down off the mountain more often than recent presidential families, especially the urging of 12-year-old Chelsea.

Residents say the last time a president graced Thurmont with a visit was May 1978, when President Jimmy Carter attended Weller United Methodist Church.

George W. Wireman, 72, town historian and native of Thurmont, says that before Mr. Carter, three presidents attended church here: Richard M. Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower, twice each, and Lyndon B. Johnson three times.

Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Gerald R. Ford did not visit Thurmont, Mr. Wireman says. President Roosevelt came once or twice with Winston Churchill, but stayed in the car while the British prime minister dined at the Cozy Restaurant.

None of the visits caused hysteria among the residents.

"We don't bother too much with the president, because we know he's up there to get away from it all," Mr. Wireman says. "We don't make a big deal about it."

When the helicopters fly over or the motorcades whisk through, "people just sort of say, 'There he goes,' " says John Brown, owner of Brown's Jewelry and Gift Shop.

You can't find a souvenir of Camp David in Mr. Brown's downtown store -- or anywhere else in town, he says. Nor can you find Camp David, even though it's a 10-minute drive from the center of town.

You can drive west on Maryland Route 77 into Catoctin Mountain National Park and then turn right onto Park Central Road. You can follow that until you see a sign and turnoff for Camp No. 3.

But you'd better not turn -- or even linger -- unless you want an extremely rude greeting from armed guards. They have a way of materializing out of the woods.

Mr. Hamrick found that out trying to get a glimpse of Mr. Carter. The minister and his son pulled off Maryland 77 after spotting the telltale sign of the president fishing in Hunting Creek: a station wagon on the side of the road with a couple of guys standing around trying to look casual. Mr. Hamrick knew this meant the president was fishing down below.

"We took about two steps into the woods," Mr. Hamrick says, "and a Secret Service agent -- not one of the two by the station wagon -- suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I did not see him when we stopped."

As it turned out, Mr. Hamrick says, the agent let him and his son have a brief look at President Carter fishing by himself.

Mr. Hamrick had a closer presidential encounter on Easter 1971, when Mr. Nixon, his wife and family attended Thurmont United Methodist Church.

He remembers it clearly. The president sat in the second pew.

"I have that pew over at my mother's house next door," Mr. Hamrick says. He salvaged it when the church was torn down and a new one consecrated in 1988.

Mr. Hamrick has written Mr. Clinton and invited him to church, even though the Arkansas Democrat is a Baptist. Hillary Clinton, the minister notes, is a Methodist.

If President-elect Clinton doesn't first attend a church in Thurmont, the smart money says he'll visit the one McDonald's in town. Everybody you talk to seems to think that, except the young crew at McDonald's.

When three managers on duty were asked about the possibility of the next president popping in, they all responded with blank looks.

Finally, Scott, who wouldn't give his last name, said he'd rather see a big-name athlete. Not long ago, he said, two Washington Redskins cheerleaders stopped in.

Now that, the young man said, was something to get excited about.

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