Joe Ehrmann: a nice big bear you'd like to hug

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 29, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

It was love at first sight: The first time I met Joe Ehrmann, I fell instantly in love with him.

The time was the raucous, howling afterglow of the Baltimore Colts' 1975 playoff win over the Miami Dolphins, when Toni Linhart lifted that overtime field goal through a wintry evening fog at Memorial Stadium.

Ehrmann, the rugged defensive tackle, stood in the Colts' locker room afterward, eyes glowing, hands sweeping toward thousands of fans lingering at the ballpark and refusing to go home.

"Those people out there," he said, shaking his woolly head in a kind of awe. "I'd like to hug every one of 'em, I really would."

I fell in love with Ehrmann in that instant because, in a way many professional athletes do not, he seemed to understand the relationship between this town and the football team it adored. He understood the heartbeat of sports.

Only, it's turned out since then, he has a heart that goes far beyond any playing field.

Some of this, you already know from old newspaper accounts: How Ehrmann's kid brother, Billy, was stricken with cancer and how Joe devoted his life to Billy's final months, how the experience transformed Joe and turned him to religion, and how he opened his East Baltimore ministry eight years ago.

You should see this place, called The Door. It's a converted church on North Chester Street, filled with scores of kids on a summer morning, doing remarkable summertime things: learning to read, figuring math on computers, listening to Bible stories, studying black history.

And here's Ehrmann, in shorts and sandals, hair going white, giving a little tour with one request: "Don't make the story about me, OK?"

Well, it is about him and it isn't. It's about Joe Ehrmann, because none of this would have happened without him: not the kids coming here to get their lives in order, and not the money that sustains this place, from people who know Ehrmann's reputation and believe in him.

But it's also about the things happening to a lot of young people in this community, which have to be overcome if the city is to survive.

Talk to a fellow named Bob Kirk, who heads The Door's literacy program. He shows you a computer printout of dozens of kids, barely into middle school, who are already five, six years behind standard reading levels.

"They're behind," says Kirk, "not because they're dumb. Their intelligence is fine. But they're not being taught. They come to school with so many needs, and the classes are overcrowded and the teachers don't have time for them, and they get passed on because nobody knows what else to do."

A bunch of them are sitting in a circle now, where they're getting one-on-one attention with their reading. One room away, kids are sitting at computer terminals. A 10-year old named Michele is doing long division.

"This is the first thing I go to," she says, pointing to her keyboard. She attends William Paca Elementary, but she's never seen a computer there. She's one of about 125 kids who come to The Door every day and try to catch up on the things they've missed along the way.

Plenty of this is helped by institutions -- Baltimore Reads, VISTA, the Governor's Commission on Drugs and Alcohol all contribute -- but it's also fed by a sense of mission: If these kids slip through the cracks, the city will have lost part of a generation.

"This is not just a do-gooder, touchy-feely thing," says Ehrmann, noting that The Door is evaluated by the University of Maryland "so we can see where we're hitting the mark and where we're not."

For Ehrmann, raised in a single-parent family in a tough part of Buffalo, N.Y., it's the most fulfilling part of his life.

"For a long time," he says, "you buy into the familiar message: Get money, get things. You spend your whole life trying to get things, and then you get them, and you find you're still sick at heart."

"All this suffering, where's the justice? These kids," he says, sweeping a big hand around the room, "they've got intelligence and energy, and they don't get a chance to develop. You just want to hug 'em."

For an instant, you remember that night in the Colts' locker room, and Joe Ehrmann wanting to hug everybody back then. It's the same guy, and the same emotional instincts. But he's working a bigger playing field now.

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