The Gudelskys: heroes of good TV and good health

July 12, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

I was driving out of the city, past the construction at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, when I saw his name in shiny letters on the side of the dramatic new patient tower at the Medical Center.

"The Homer Gudelsky Building."

Homer Gudelsky, I thought. The name was as familiar as it was unusual. How did I know Homer Gudelsky?

Of course. The answer came to me like the ding of a trolley. "This presentation of 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood' is made possible in part by the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation."

My husband and I used to cuddle with our kids and watch Fred Rogers' low-tech, slow-speed days. "Thank you, Homer. Thank you, Martha," we would say to each other, laughing, but with gratitude for any half-hour spent with young children at rest.

It has been a while since Mr. Rogers could hold their attention. "Reading Rainbow" is a favorite now, and, according to the credits, we have Homer and Martha to thank for that, too.

Who is Homer Gudelsky? And why is his name attached to such diverse places as the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and a state-of-the-art patient and cancer center? And is it true that all the doctors there will wear cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes?

Homer Gudelsky grew up in Baltimore County. After serving in World War II, he joined his brother, Isadore, in a family sand and gravel business in Silver Spring. To supply the company with the materials needed for the massive road building around Washington after the war, the Gudelskys purchased vast tracts of land in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Some of that land -- 1,000 acres -- was sold to The Rouse Co. in 1963 for the beginning of Columbia.

But Gudelsky was probably best known for developing Tysons Corner Center in Virginia. A dusty crossroads in the middle of an apple orchard in 1962, Tysons Corner offered only a general store, a fruit stand and a gas station. When it opened in 1968, it was heralded as the largest single-level mall in the country.

Gudelsky and his partners sold Tysons Corner and the as-yet-undeveloped Tysons II in the early 1980s for $188 million.

Gudelsky died of leukemia five years ago tomorrow at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. While he was a patient there, when he was feeling strong enough, he would quiz his doctors about the future of the hospital system that had broken such important ground with the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

When they showed him drawings and plans for the patient care center, Gudelsky told them he would seed the drive to fund the $85 million project. "Get your numbers together and call me."

He died before he could make good on his promise, but his family wrote a $5 million check in memory of him. Thus the building carries his name.

Gudelsky's funding of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" springs from happier times.

"We always did things as a family," says Rita Regino, one of his daughters. "With five kids, you sort of had to. And my father was very conscious of what they call now 'family entertainment.' "

As his children grew, Gudelsky became uncomfortable with the violent and sexual nature of television, movies and theater. When his first grandchild came along 20 years ago, he discovered the gentle world of Fred Rogers. "This is family entertainment," he declared.

There are eight grandchildren now. "My dad just liked watching 'Mr. Rogers' with the kids," says Medda Gudelsky, another daughter.

For 11 years, his family foundation has contributed between $15,000 and $22,000 a year to WETA in Washington, and for a while to Maryland Public Television, to support "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," a show no other underwriters were interested in picking up.

"Everyone was on the 'Sesame Street' bandwagon then," recalls Ms. Regino. "Nobody wanted 'Mr. Rogers.' "

And nobody wanted to underwrite "Reading Rainbow," either.

Starring LeVar Burton, the young Kunta Kinte in "Roots," "Reading Rainbow" caught the attention of Ms. Regino, an educator, five years ago. It brought books to children whose parents did not read to them.

"The greatest predictor for academic success is being read to at an early age," says Ms. Regino. "This is just the kind of programming my father would have supported."

Thanks, Homer. Thanks, Martha.

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