Stokes gets the last laugh

February 23, 1997|By Elise Armacost

THAT NEW ENGLAND Journal of Medicine article about the hazards of talking on car phones while driving sounded familiar when I read about it last week. I could swear I heard somebody sounding this warning before. Who was it? Then I remembered.

Stokes.

A couple of years ago an obscure former state delegate named Charles W. Stokes Kolodziejski, a nice old guy from blue-collar Carvel Beach in northern Anne Arundel County, sponsored a bill prohibiting drivers from holding car phones while they're moving. Personal experience inspired him.

''I was in the car with someone using a car phone'' -- he won't say who but sources say it was another nice old guy, former Anne Arundel delegate W. Ray Huff -- ''and the car actually went onto the median strip and onto the grass. Then I read about this man who was driving on Tick Neck Road talking to his wife. They were in the midst of a divorce, and the conversation got so heated he threw the phone at the windshield.''

Stokes saw disaster waiting to happen. So he put in a bill. In The Sun's Anne Arundel bureau, where I was assigned at the time, everybody laughed. Everybody usually laughed when Stokes' name came up -- not in a mean way, but just because Stokes was a character who made you want to chuckle.

Take his name, for instance. Stokes was a childhood nickname referring to the stovepipe knickers he wore. Nobody calls him Charles, so a few years ago he made Stokes his legal name.

A product of the old Democratic clubs, Stokes was not what you'd call a heavy hitter in Annapolis. A few of his bills passed. He was once named delegate of the year by the Greater Washington/Maryland Service Station and Automotive Repair Association for spearheading a law allowing advertisements for milk, cigarettes and such on the windows of filling-station markets.

Most of his ideas went nowhere. Some were downright silly. He tried to make duckpin bowling the state sport. Talking of disasters waiting to happen, he considered a ''straight ahead on red'' bill. He wanted to require automotive lighting systems to be connected to ignition systems; that way, nobody would forget to turn the lights on during rain or fog or forget to turn them off if it was still daylight. Stokes swears the number of accidents

declined 20 to 30 percent after they started rigging cars this way in Scandinavia.

Check it out, Hon

''Hon,'' he says, ''if you check it out that was a great bill.''

Maybe we should check it out, because all of a sudden Stokes is looking almost visionary. Stokesian ideas are popping up all over the place!

Mrs. Stokes, Georgia Kolodziejski, has noticed it, and let me tell you, she's saying ''I told you so'' loud enough to hear in Cumberland, not to mention Annapolis. ''Mark my words, they are going to be coming out with his car-phone bill. At the time I thought he put in sensible bills. And now it's being proven.''

Stokes wanted a law encouraging Maryland school children to wear uniforms. He wore uniforms in parochial school, and thought they were good for discipline. Now everybody's talking about school uniforms. ''Even the president of the United States is for it,'' Mrs. Kolodziejski says. ''Ha.''

Year after year, he sponsored legislation making English the official language of Maryland, promptly derided as jingoistic and unnecessary. But with the growth of native-speaking Hispanic and Asian populations a number of states are considering required use of English for state business. The Sun, once an opponent of English-only measures, editorialized recently about the dangers of multi-lingualism.

Stokes tried to write a computer-fraud bill. ''I figured the time was coming when we'd be banking from home, and then all sorts of shenanigans would go on. Some expert in computers could steal all your money.''

Turns out, he figured right.

None of this will change Stokes' place in the annals of Maryland history. He was like so many of the lawmakers we elect. Sincere but limited, uninterested in or incapable of shaping major policy, but conscientious about looking after the folks back home. Stokes identified some everyday problems, but he didn't supply the data to support his ideas to other lawmakers. In some cases, that was because the data didn't yet exist.

''It turns out that Stokes was just ahead of his time,'' says Anne Arundel Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, not altogether in jest.

Stokes was voted out of office in 1994. Today, he's a county liquor inspector, enjoying life and feeling vindicated rather than annoyed that we're embracing ideas we laughed at when they were his.

Maybe Stokes was smarter than we thought. Maybe we've grown so frustrated looking for real solutions that simplistic cures like school uniforms look better to us than they once did. Either way, Stokes is the one who's chuckling now.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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