They Made Year, Umm, What It Was

COMMENT

December 26, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Remember the year Time magazine named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini its "Man of the Year"? Readers -- not realizing that Time was choosing someone who most influenced the year's events, not one who did the most noble deeds -- were outraged that such an infamous human being given so much recognition.

Well, The Sun's Anne Arundel bureau would find itself in a similar predicament were it to name a "Man of the Year" for 1993. Because the "award" would have to go to the ignoble Ronald Walter Price, the weaselly former Northeast High teacher who sexually abused his students, then went on "Geraldo!" to tell about it.

No one else had greater impact.

This paper runs hundreds of stories about people who get into trouble. Most of the time, their transgressions reflect on no one but themselves. But every so often the scandalous actions of one individual are a symptom of something terribly wrong with the system to which he belongs. Such was the case with Ron Price.

When he fell from grace, he took with him a school bureaucracy that had alternately turned its back on and winked at his misdeeds, and those of others like him, for decades. More than that, he changed the way school systems all over Maryland view child-abuse reporting laws and questionable student-teacher relationships. We will not soon forget such ignominious and unbelievable moments as when Price's attorney, Timothy Umbreit, proclaimed on "Geraldo!" that what Price did with students wasn't so bad because "none of them were virgins."

Or when an angry federal judge ordered Mr. Umbreit to copy a portion of the law legibly, and in longhand, as penalty for moving a case that belonged in Anne Arundel CirCuit court to U.S. District Court. Or Price's sentencing, where Judge Eugene Lerner denounced him for, among other things, "having sex all over a public building."

But enough of Price. Others besides him made headlines -- many for the wrong they did, but others for the good they did, and still others for just their unique and quirky roles in the tragi-comedy of life.

Before 1993 fades into oblivion, let us remember a few of its Price-less moments:

* April 25: Andrew Fleischmann, 67, of Pasadena. Six decades ago, his widowed father had given him up as a baby to trusted friends because he had too many children to care for alone, but then the Pasadena man is joyously reunited with five siblings and three of four half-siblings.

He didn't know they existed, but they knew of him and finally tracked him down. They'd been living within a few miles of each other all these years.

* May 23: Six black Secret Service agents accuse the Annapolis Denny's of refusing to serve them breakfast. Days later, civil rights leaders and Denny's defenders set up warring pickets. One of the latter carries a sign bearing this left-handed compliment: "Denny's does not discriminate. It just serves food late."

* July 21: County Executive Robert R. Neall, who gave us one of 1992's best moments when he took off on foot after a man who broke into his house at 1 a.m., is driving to court in Annapolis to testify against the guy. On the way, he sees him trying to hitch a ride. So he picks him up in his white Buick and gives him a lift to the courthouse!

To a citizenry sick to the gills of limo-riding, high-falutin' politicians, the exec never looked better. Bobby Neall's star was rising.

* Early August: Chris Kwak, the 1993 Meade Senior High valedictorian who calls the Pioneer City public housing complex home, wins a scholarship to Harvard.

* Aug. 25: Thomas J. Cummings, a 24-year-old Arnold man with no history of violence, pulls out a gun at the Severna Park Dunkin' Donuts and shoots college student Charles H. Willis, 21, killing him. Mr. Cummings was upset because Mr. Willis refused to sell him a cheap pen. He then drives to Norfolk, Va., and kills himself.

* Oct. 15: Bobby Neall pulls his own star out of the sky. He hastily calls a press conference and, with his family forming a grim tableau behind him, announces that he is quitting politics.

* Oct. 28: Annapolis Mayor Al Hopkins, speaking at a debate before the city election, is asked to respond to the charge that he's a nice man but incompetent. "I don't think there's any question that I am not a competent mayor," he says.

Later, Gentle Al adopts a tough-guy stance against suggestions that he's a ceremonial figure. Slamming his fist on the podium, the mayor shouts, "I run this city. I run this city. I don't know how to prove that except to say that I -- RUN -- THIS -- CITY!!"

Even former mayor and independent candidate Dennis Callahan taken aback. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says quietly, "I think he runs this city."

* Oct. 31: It's Halloween, but high school students at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park aren't pulling tricks. They're treating the elderly and needy to a free leaf-raking.

* Nov. 2: Al Hopkins wins a second term by a landslide. Later, he celebrates at Fran O'Brien's, where he charms his many supporters with his distinctive Al-ness.

"All I can say is, 'Beat Army!!' " he shouts. Then he launches into a rendition of "I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do," and the crowd quickly joins in.

Happy holidays, Anne Arundel, and best wishes for a priceless 1994.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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