Man of Iron -- Gas and Oil, Too

September 12, 1995

The Baltimore area last week played host to two parades honoring dedication and achievement. The largest of the two was the celebration of Cal Ripken Jr.'s success on the baseball diamond.

The second, a decidedly smaller affair in Howard County, could have easily been missed. Its honoree, 74-year-old Lenny Hobbs, has lived a markedly different life than a major-league star and is hardly known outside the tiny town of Dayton in the rural western part of the county. But Mr. Hobbs has caught some folks' attention nonetheless by doing something that is rare and reassuring in today's world. Mr. Hobbs has run the same service station for 50 years in Dayton, pumping the gas himself and selling candy that still costs a penny.

Sunday's parade for Mr. Hobbs was appropriately a low-key, neighborhood affair. Dayton has never hosted such an event, but similar gatherings -- with children on their bikes, a marching band and antique cars -- seem to have always been a part of America everywhere. The event, like Mr. Hobbs, was a comforting reminder of a time long gone when going to the gas station was a ritual that involved human contact, an exchange of pleasantries as well as service. Today, gas stations are so automated as to be totally impersonal. Self-service is near-mandatory and cashiers sit behind thick glass windows, where even they can be avoided so long as the buyer has a debit card.

That Mr. Hobbs has operated his station virtually without change for 50 years is a feat that deserves acknowledgment as much as a record-breaking string of games. It is not that Mr. Ripken's feat should be downgraded; far from it. But he accomplished his streak before adoring crowds and was handsomely compensated. Mr. Hobbs simply worked tirelessly and consistently in a job that's never going to bring him riches or the embrace of celebrity. He has resisted updating and held to the notion that people still like a personal touch, a kind word of "hello," a familiar face. His reward has been a loyal clientele, some of whom were children when they hung out at the station with friends years ago. Dayton is not so rural as when he opened his doors in 1940s; some new residents live in mini-mansions and drive Porsches and Jaguars these days. But Mr. Hobbs remains steady and dependable.

Bernard Malamud's novel, "The Natural," is about a baseball player named Roy Hobbs who found stardom. This Hobbs is named Lenny, but his endurance is as deserving of a moment of fame.

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