Parris Glendening's career has beaten some long odds

Candidate: Parris N. Glendening has risen above family struggles to become governor. Tuesday, he will announce his bid for a second term.

June 14, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

In his earliest memory, Parris Glendening sits afraid on a stone wall in North Carolina, far from home.

The family's truck has crashed during a long-distance move to Florida, their belongings lost. Four-year-old Parris waits outside a clinic, his eye splashed with gasoline.

It is a nightmarish snapshot of an early life defined by poverty and touched often by heartache -- a life Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has diligently left behind.

As Jerry Church, his blunt-spoken step-grandfather, put it: "Parris has pulled himself out of a terrible mess."

Tuesday, Glendening will formally launch his bid for a second four-year term as governor -- a campaign in which his integrity and record will come under relentless attack.

But none of his opponents will be able to undo a simple truth: Win or lose, Glendening has already beaten the long odds of his life.

The governor acknowledges that his approach to public service -- his firm belief that government can and should help those who need it -- was forged in his family's struggles in South Florida.

His family, so poor that the six children sometimes went without food, regained its footing in part with a government loan Glendening's father used to start his business. A mentally retarded brother received care from the state. Another brother lost a battle with AIDS. And Parris, a machinist's son, received scholarships that propelled him to a doctorate at a public university -- the only member of his family to go beyond high school.

"These things kind of define who I am," Glendening, 56, said recently during a rare interview at his comfortable brick home in a leafy neighborhood near College Park.

"From my perspective, I just wanted to get out of that poverty," he said. "There's nothing wrong with being poor. There is something wrong with not having the opportunity not to be poor."

As Glendening prepares for what could be his last campaign, he seems far removed from his past. He remains upbeat, appearing to cherish life with his wife and son in a family that bears little resemblance to the one his parents built.

"I am going to win, I really believe that," Glendening said. "But I think about where I came from and here I am -- governor. Not wealthy, but economically secure. What's the worst that can happen?"

Starting from scratch

Glendening was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1942, the first son and second child of Raymond and Jean Glendening. The name Parris was borrowed from a movie character -- Dr. Parris, the gentlemanly physician in "Kings Row," the 1941 potboiler that starred Ronald Reagan.

When his father's gas station business collapsed, the bankrupt family decided in 1946 to move to Miami to be near Jean Glendening's mother and stepfather.

They piled their belongings into a truck and headed south. In North Carolina, the truck overturned -- young Parris' first memory.

"The family was OK," Glendening said, "but everything was lost."

Starting from scratch, the Glendenings settled just outside Miami in Hialeah -- a neighborhood Glendening described as "poor rough" -- in a shack across the road from a quarry.

The house had only a front porch, a living room and a kitchen. Chickens roamed the yard, and there was a single light bulb in the kitchen with electricity stolen from a neighbor. An outhouse stood out back -- a frightening place that attracted snakes and left a lasting impression on the children.

"You had all these cobwebs in there. It was scary," recalled Lynne Craker, Glendening's older sister, who still lives in the area in a trailer home decorated with jigsaw puzzles she put together.

Glendening's mother was a demanding woman who had, it seems, little interest in her six children, preferring to listen to crooner Nelson Eddy, play bingo or go fishing. She insisted the children call her "Jean" and was jealous of their successes, family members say.

"She felt like the whole world owed her a living," said Church, Jean Glendening's stepfather, now retired from the orchid business and living in the small town of Okeechobee, Fla. "She would sit home and holler until she got it."

Parris, nicknamed "Pee-Wee" because of his small stature until a late growth spurt, never caused trouble. "He was afraid to antagonize his mother," Church said.

But he was a hero to his younger siblings, remembers his sister, April Paulin.

"We would play King of the Hill, and Parris was always the king," said Paulin, 50, a gunnery sergeant in the Marines stationed in Japan. "Parris was always the one we looked up to."

Parris' father, Raymond, was a tall quiet man who worked two jobs -- at a gas station and in a machine shop. On weekends, he delivered milk, giving Parris a chance to spend time with him.

"We would take a few crackers from home and have cottage cheese and crackers," Glendening said. "It was pretty neat."

Such moments were surely rare.

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