At 80, still raring for another term New Market elected official serving 50 years maintains quiet continuity

January 23, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

NEW MARKET -- W. Franklin Smith eschews the throngs of shoppers who regularly trample this small village searching for antiques. Little do they know that this octogenarian is a rare treasure himself.

At age 80, Mr. Smith still farms and sells cattle. And he is still on the town council. In fact, Mr. Smith is now in his 50th year as an elected official of this Frederick County town.

That's five decades of unbroken and unpaid public service -- the first 24 years as mayor and the rest as a councilman.

In terms of consecutive years in office, his record of longevity seems to be unmatched among Maryland municipal officials.

His closest contender -- according to Maryland Municipal League records -- is Harry Knotts, commission president of Templeville in Queen Anne's County who at 82 has served 45 consecutive one-year terms on the three-member commission.

"It's relatively unusual," said Jonathan Magruder, a researcher for the Maryland Municipal League. "We do have some long-serving folks -- some who even have more than 20 years of continuous service. I think it's unusual for people to live to be 80 and still be productive."

Maryland has one other 80-plus politician who no doubt would object to that assessment -- Louis L. Goldstein, 81, who has served in statewide office longer than anyone else in Maryland and won an unprecedented 10th term as comptroller in November. He's to be sworn in -- yet again -- today.

Mr. Goldstein first began serving as a state delegate from Calvert County in 1939. But his run of consecutive years in elected office was broken by a six-year stint in the Marines. He returned to public office in 1947 when Calvert countians elected him as a state senator.

In New Market, Mr. Smith is serving his 13th consecutive term in elective office.

"Oh, my, they're interesting," the understated Mr. Smith said of the monthly council and planning commission meetings that many people would deem deadly after a few years. He is the five-member council's liaison to the planning commission.

"We generally always have something that comes up that is worth listening to," he said quietly. "You have to listen to what people have to say and keep them happy. That's part of the job," he said.

"He's had a political life longer than anyone I know," said Frank Shaw, New Market mayor, who, having served 25 years in that post, is no political novice either. "It's an unpaid position, and the way I see it, you don't need term limits when you're not paid."

To what does Mr. Smith owe his longevity?

"It's a quiet town," said Mr. Smith, a widower and the father of one son, Wayne, an architect who lives in Bethesda. "You have a little controversy, but not much. Not much has changed here over the years."

The most significant change, he said, has been the town's transformation from a sleepy farm village to the so-called "Antiques Capital of Maryland," familiar to most who travel Interstate 70. Mr. Smith had been in public office about a decade when the first antique shop opened for business on Main Street.

"Now, we have 40 stores. I got so tired of seeing antiques-lovers going up and down the street that I moved back here and built this house," he said, referring to his contemporary white brick home that sits on a two-acre tract behind Main Street.

There have been controversies. Occasionally, there's a flap about sign sizes and regulations. A water and sewer system now under construction has divided some members of the community.

There was widespread opposition, too, to proposals for a truck stop outside of town in the 1970s and a McDonald's franchise on the eastern edge of the historic district just a few years ago. For the most part, though, townsfolk and elected officials have agreed on issues.

"Frank is a big asset from a historical standpoint," said Richard Fleshman, a planning commission member. "You look at him and think he's been here forever. But he can tell you why things were done the way they were and why it's the way it is today."

Although Mr. Smith tends to be quiet, he doesn't hesitate to speak out on issues and rarely has missed a council meeting.

Said Mr. Shaw, "He usually contributes to everything. He knows a lot about what's going on around here because he's got the cattle business and gets out. He's been a great source of knowledge for us.

"He's always the one who will say, 'Don't you think we've knocked this thing around long enough. Let's get a decision on it.' "

The makeup of the town's populace -- which numbers about 500 -- has changed over the years, too. Once New Market was a village of farmers and retirees. These days it's composed of owners of upscale antique shops and newcomers from Montgomery County and elsewhere.

And like Terry Rimel, who moved to New Market in 1986, many of them have been won over by Mr. Smith's devotion to the community.

"He's a lovely person," said Mrs. Rimel, who along with her husband, Tom, owns the National Pike Inn. "He's a warm and compassionate man. He's very community-oriented. We couldn't have asked for anything more. That's why he keeps getting re-elected."

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