The Person Behind 'Polly's People'

November 06, 1994|By EDWARD H. SHUR

"I do not sit around and wring my hands about getting old. I fight some kind of battle all the time and will continue to do so. However, the Golden Years, so far as I'm concerned, are highly overrated and for the birds!"

Polly Ely never was one to mince words. That sharp wit was one of the many qualities I appreciated about the woman I had known for more than 12 years. Sadly, my deaf friend and adopted granny (I was the only one who she'd allow to call her that) -- who enriched my life and the lives of countless others -- was laid to rest yesterday in Springfield Cemetery in Sykesville.

"I've done a lot, worked like the devil on a lot of projects," she told me on her 73rd birthday in 1986. "I like to volunteer. It's going out of style.

"I just wish I had 20 more years of it left. I don't want to live until 93. I want to live as long as I can be independent by myself and not be a burden. That would kill me more than anything else."

Indeed, her service to the community dates back more than six decades. As long-time friend and former Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. once said, Polly was the "most uninvolved involved person I know." This was one retiree who'd never be found playing cards at the South Carroll Senior Center.

But even more than her service to the Springfield Hospital Center, Gary's Widows, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Carroll County General Hospital, the Sykesville Fire Department and other groups too numerous to mention, she will be best known for her "Polly's People" columns.

Over the years, her columns -- in the now-defunct Sykesville Herald, the Carroll County Times, The Sun for Carroll County and, until her death, Neighborhoods of South Carroll -- brought personal stories into the homes of countless Carroll countians. Whether she was writing a heartwarming feature about a person, a look at a local business or simple tidbits of community happenings, she was widely read. (Last March, two albums of Polly's People columns were donated to the Sykesville Historic Commission for permanent display in the Town House.)

I considered myself fortunate when I was able to bring her popular columns to this newspaper in the mid-1980s. She added a perspective and knowledge of the area that no one else could provide.

One day, when I was foolish enough to suggest a few changes in one of her columns, she looked me square in the face and said, quite emphatically, that she was not a reporter. I'm an old-fashioned writer, accept me for what I am, she said. Yes, Polly, I replied meekly. Subject closed.

Over the years, she won just about every accolade, honor and award one could imagine.

But this humble woman always felt embarrassed by the honors. Take 1986, when the Carroll County Commissioners declared her birthday, July 28, Polly Ely Day, in honor of being named one of Maryland's 10 best senior citizens.

"That's awful! People will think, 'Who in the hell is Polly Ely to get this?' I'm flabbergasted. I can't imagine why they're doing this."

When I first met her, I initially was surprised with her occasional use of "hell" or "damn." People sometimes kidded her about that. After I felt I knew her well enough, I asked her about that. She simply smiled and said, "That's the way I talk sometimes." In later years, her talk became more "ladylike." She said she wanted to be remembered "for her family and community and volunteer service, not for her cussing."

Interestingly enough, we became closest during the last two years, and especially the last 12 months. A year ago, a new job in Minnesota meant I'd be leaving Carroll County. I dreaded having to tell Polly, for I knew it was going to hurt. I put it off and put it off until I no longer could.

When I finally mustered up the courage to drive to her apartment and break the news, it was as difficult as I feared. I could see the sorrow in her eyes and hear it in her voice.

We promised to stay in touch -- and did. Through letters, telephone calls and by exchanging taped messages, we grew even closer. I knew she had endured a difficult summer health-wise, so my concern rose a great deal last weekend when I learned she had been hospitalized.

I called her at the hospital and, in true Polly fashion, she was chomping at the bit to return to her beloved Sykesville apartment.

It was to be our last conversation, but at least I got to tell her once more how much I loved her.

With most other people, I'd say they're finally at rest. But knowing Polly, she's undoubtedly already talking with St. Peter about continuing to write her Polly's People column.

So, if I may be so bold, I'd give St. Peter a piece of advice: Don't change a word. Just print it.

Edward H. Shur, former Carroll County bureau chief for the Baltimore Sun, is general manager and executive editor of a chain of weekly newspapers in the Minnesota area.

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