A hard-won empathy In his words: "I think that [I] really started in a small town with some problems to overcome and continued with the problems of the Depression. I believe it conditioned me in a way that accounted for my life."

April 10, 1996|By Kathy Lally and James M. Coram | Kathy Lally and James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

His family taught Jim Rouse hard work. Life taught him optimism.

Early on, Mr. Rouse developed an outlook that found opportunity in adversity.

As a child, he learned that life's bitterest blows could be absorbed and overcome. His father, Willard G. Rouse, was addicted to heroin, which had been given to him as treatment for a World War I injury.

The elder Mr. Rouse would nod off during dinner, Jim Rouse told his son, Ted. But he also managed to keep afloat his business as a canned-food broker and provide a large, comfortable Victorian home in Easton for his wife and five children.

In later life, Jim Rouse exhibited an exceptional empathy for those trapped in poor, drug-infested neighborhoods. Perhaps, Ted Rouse says, that early exposure to a father who could not wean himself from a drug had influenced him forever.

'We had a wonderful family'

In 1930, while still a teen-ager, Jim Rouse found himself in circumstances that could have seemed insurmountable: His mother died in February; he graduated from high school in Easton that April; his father died in August; and the mortgage on the family home was foreclosed in October.

"I was ready for it in the sense that we had a wonderful family," Mr. Rouse once said in an interview. "I was just 16 years old at the time. I had to live in a boarding house in the last year or two. My mother and father were both in the hospital the last year of their lives. I felt I was old enough and conditioned enough to be able to handle it."

Young Jim Rouse figured out what he had to do.

"I had no money," he said. "I couldn't go to college. But I invented some way, and the invention was to get out to Hawaii, where my sister was married to a naval officer, and I could go to the University of Hawaii free. Going through those years equipped me for what came -- the Depression."

Mr. Rouse saw his life as one that evolved. There was no moment of transformation.

"This was no Paul on the road to Damascus kind of thing that hit me," he once said. "It was just a natural growth of the road that I was on. And I think that really started in a small town with some problems to overcome and continued with the problems of the Depression. I believe it conditioned me in a way that accounted for my life."

His was a life of service, said Bruce D. Alexander, a former Rouse vice president. "Everything he did was powerful because the vision was always to build a better life for people."

At the same time, Mr. Rouse was known for driving a hard bargain, especially by tenants who complained that the Rouse Co. charged the highest rents around.

"He was disdainful of people in business who were not committed to improve the human condition," said George Barker, a former lawyer for the Rouse Co. "He believed you could do that and still make a profit. He believed that if you created something which is appealing and has socially redeeming value, people will buy the product."

Church's influence strong

Mr. Rouse was profoundly influenced by his membership in the Church of the Savior in Washington. The church's work in developing housing for Washington's poor sparked Mr. Rouse's decision to start the Enterprise Foundation, dedicated to creating a national model for improving inner-city housing.

"When he spoke, it was always about the cause, the vision, never about himself," said Jean Moon, former general manager of a weekly newspaper in Columbia. "He saw himself as an instrument. His was a sensibility informed by religion."

And when he spoke, Mr. Rouse had a gift.

"How wonderfully he could speak and communicate," said James Moxley, a Howard County developer and longtime friend who helped buy the 15,000 acres on which Columbia was built. "He convinced three Republican county commissioners elected on a low-density development platform that the idea of a large planned community would be good for Howard County."

ZTC Mr. Rouse liked to make money -- and he made a great deal of it -- but he didn't flaunt it. He lived in a Columbia house with a wonderful lake view, but it was relatively modest for a man of his wealth. He bought a Chesapeake Bay island for a vacation home, but his fanciest car was an Oldsmobile station wagon.

"He had an absolutely unpretentious common quality," said Padraic M. Kennedy, his next-door neighbor and president of the organization that manages Columbia's parks and recreational facilities. "He loved the fact that he was treated like anyone else in the community."

Early on, he painted his door yellow, which was a violation of the new town's covenants. When the village architectural committee called attention to it, he wrote the committee a note, saying, "My face is red because my door is yellow."

Mrs. Moon says he was not the sort to spend time on introspection. "He was a totally, totally grounded character," she said. "What put him head and shoulders above other people was his confidence."

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