Willie Brice, 71, woodworker, employee of Bethlehem Steel

June 14, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Each evening, after dinner was cleared and his five children were put to bed, Willie Brice retired to the basement of his East Baltimore home, turned on the lathe and relaxed in his special way.

Until the early morning hours, he would shape, carve and sand chunks of wood into desks, kitchen cabinets and rocking chairs -- ornate and functional items that he would sell or give away.

"It was some of the most beautiful pieces that you could imagine," said Floyd Brice of Baltimore, Mr. Brice's son. "He was always down there at night, just doing what he liked to do best."

Mr. Brice, 71, died June 7 at Johns Hopkins Hospital of heart failure.

Funeral services were held last night at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on East Preston Street, the church he joined more than 40 years ago. He will be buried today.

His woodwork graced his home, friends' homes and the sanctuary at the church.

"His stuff was quality work and he was proud of it," said Levi Mack, a longtime friend. "He sure knew how to work with his hands."

About 30 years ago, Mr. Brice decided to build a new pulpit at Mount Pleasant, feeling the existing one was too small.

"He just decided to build it, just like that, no more questions about it," Mr. Mack said. "So we built one together. We mapped it out, but he did most of the building. He did it for the church. He finished it in about a week. An entire pulpit in about a week."

The pulpit still is at the church.

Lillie Mae Shannon, a member at Mount Pleasant, said much of Mr. Brice's work went unnoticed.

"He was very easygoing and quiet," Ms. Shannon said. "If you didn't see him do something, you wouldn't know he did it."

Born in Chester County, S.C., Mr. Brice moved to Baltimore in 1942, and became known in his community near Johns Hopkins Hospital as "Mr. Fix It" because of his carpentry and handyman skills.

He worked at Bethlehem Steel for more than 20 years and for several construction companies until he retired in the late 1980s.

Mr. Brice served in the Army in 1945 as a private and was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. In 1942, he married the former Marie Sawyer, who died in 1992.

Next to his family, his passions were his church and woodworking.

Relatives said that always after dinner -- and sometimes before -- Mr. Brice would ease down to the basement to enjoy his vocation.

"It wasn't as though he was taught woodworking," Floyd Brice said. "He learned just by doing it. It was just a God-given talent. He just gave all praise to God for being able to do it."

A granddaughter, Renay Moore of Baltimore, said she had tried to get him to slow down in recent years but she was unsuccessful.

"He felt it kept him busy and gave him something to do, so he did it," Ms. Moore said.

Mr. Brice's woodworking wasn't restricted to furniture.

Once, seeing how the youngsters near his home were having a difficult time playing basketball with only a hoop, he made up a backboard and installed it on a play area.

Although woodworking took up most of his spare time, he never did it on Sundays, relatives said; that was his day of rest.

Also surviving are three other sons, Willie James Brice, Leroy Brice and Thomas Edward Brice, all of Baltimore; a daughter, Betty L. Moore of Baltimore; two sisters, Martha Gobel and Katie Brice, both of New York City; and another granddaughter, Angela Lisa Moore of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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