Truxon Sykes answers the call to activismCough syrup...


September 11, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen

Truxon Sykes answers the call to activism

Cough syrup. Dixon Bill. Panhandling. Homeless Union. Kidney transplant.

What are we talking about? Truxon Sykes' life in about 60 seconds.

Mr. Sykes, 51, has been a community activist in Baltimore for nearly 40 years. When he was 12, he joined the Young Christian Workers in West Baltimore and warned kids about the dangers of abusing cough syrup.

The first of his many visits to City Hall was in 1956. He came on behalf of the Dixon Bill, which called for the integration of city restaurants. In the 1960s, he continued his community activism, but then he "got tired of the civil rights movement."

Alcohol was his next cause. From 1972 until 1978, Mr. Sykes panhandled in northeast Baltimore. Old York Road was his spot. Anything with alcohol was his drink. "When I got enough money for a drink, that was enough for the day."

He detoxed five times before sobering up. At 36, Mr. Sykes earned his high school equivalency degree. "I decided to stop being a blue collar worker and become a white collar worker."

He became the acting executive director of the Northeast

Community Organization. But his battered kidneys failed him. In 1993, Mr. Sykes got a kidney transplant and went back to the streets. He reorganized the Baltimore Homeless Union and resumed his missions and protests -- such as opposing the city's panhandling ordinance.

Without an office, Mr. Sykes walks around "snooping" -- meeting people at Our Daily Bread, trying to help people find a job or house. "I'm doing what I like to do," says the man in the white straw hat. "I have control of my life. A lot of people don't."

It's hard to believe John McGrain wasn't born reading a history of Baltimore County.

But the 62-year-old past president of the Baltimore County Historical Society insists he started out as simply a guy with a camera.

His reputation as the man with all the answers when it comes to county history "just sort of grew out of taking pictures of certain things and wanting to find out more about them," he says.

He's particularly fascinated with industrial history and mills -- those huge wheels, usually powered by water, used to grind wheat and corn into flour and corn meal. He's seen all but one of the state's mills, he says.

Since 1974, he's served as co-editor of the historical society's newsletter, History Trails. And since 1976, he's worked for the county's Office of Planning and Zoning in Towson, trying to make sure development doesn't run roughshod over the county's 300-plus year history.

"I actually get paid for carrying on the landmark preservation activity," Mr. McGrain says.

A man who has lived in the same home in Towson since 1943 -- two years before starting at Loyola High School; he went on to Loyola College -- Mr. McGrain can talk endlessly about the county's historic places, satisfied with the knowledge that some might not even exist anymore were it not for his interest and efforts.

Among his favorites: Old Lutherville, with its classic 19th-century homes; Trenton Village, a tiny, isolated community near Carroll County; and Sudbrook Park, located west of Pikesville on what used to be the estate of James Howard McHenry, a relative of the man who provided Baltimore's most famous fort with its name.

Baltimore County, he notes, is filled with "wonderful little lost places here and there."

Chris Kaltenbach

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