Little sense in 'wise business decision'

This Just In...

July 24, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

TOMMY HORST reaches past the roses on the dining room table in his mother's house to show me the calendar on which he marked a special date in his life: Jan. 23, 1974 was "first day of new job."

He'd been hired as a groundskeeper at Parkwood Cemetery on Taylor Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. It meant a lot to him,

finding a job he could do, and one located near a bus line. He'd work outdoors, cutting grass, and he'd make some money, even have a pension. Beautiful.

Tommy liked the job so much he kept it for 24 years.

"Twenty-four and a half years," he corrects me.

He'd have kept the job forever had it not been for what happened last month. Tommy Horst is a fresh victim of what the business drones call "corporate outsourcing."

But I'll get back to that in a minute. First, some background:

Tommy Horst was born in Baltimore 53 years ago with a mild degree of cerebral palsy, a condition that left him with a speech impediment and some coordination problems. He attended Baltimore public schools.

"Govans School," he says. "No. 213."

He did well for several years, too. (He went as far as ninth grade.)

"Tommy had a teacher who really cared about him," says his mother, 81-year-old Catherine Horst. She hands me a note from Tommy's second-grade teacher, one Carolyn Klingberg. It's written in bold cursive. It's dated June 22, 1954.

"I believe that Tommy has continued to make great progress in all areas," Klingberg wrote. "He now reads in our highest reading group. His pronunciation is improved. His oral reading is understood by all the members of our class. Tommy remained with me this year but my class group changed. He made his place in this new group without protection from me."

I stop reading the letter to ask Tommy a question across the dining room table.

"The other kids didn't tease you or pick on you, Tommy?"

"No," he says, adamantly, shaking his head. "Not in those days."

"Never made fun of you?"

"No."

I go back to the letter from his teacher.

"His personality alone has made [the other students] love him and choose him as leader of one of their gym groups. He tries everything. The group frequently applauds his performance of difficult tasks. He shows great pleasure when this happens. He performs all duties with a great sense of responsibility."

Says his mother: "Tommy is a special young man. He's the sunshine of everyone's life."

He was sunnier when he was working, cutting grass at Parkwood Cemetery, picking up sticks after storms, raking leaves, carting away dead flowers from graves.

"You're not used to being home every day, are you?" I say on the porch of his house in North Baltimore.

"No," Tommy says. "But when the new company came in a few years ago, I knew something was funny."

He refers there to the change in ownership of Parkwood Cemetery. In 1996, it was purchased by Stewart Enterprises Inc., a Louisiana company that owns 120 cemeteries around the country.

This year, Parkwood "outsourced" its grass cutting services. It hired a company to do what Tommy, a 36-year-old mentally retarded man named Charlie Eick and two other workers had done. They were laid off in early June.

Lillian Mosely, the Parkwood manager who broke the news to the workers, wanted to know why I would report this information in my column. Such a story, she said, "doesn't sound very nice." She had Robert T. Nuckolls, president of Parkwood Cemetery, call me back with comment.

"It was a business decision," Nuckolls said of the layoffs. "We hired an outside contractor with more modern equipment to do the grass cutting, and there was no reason to keep the grass cutters."

In other words, nothing personal.

In fact, it was all quite impersonal, the way the boss tells it.

Nuckolls said he was unaware that at least two of the laid-off workers -- Tommy Horst and Charlie Eick -- were men with handicaps. Had he known, it still would not have made a difference, he said. Laying off the grass cutters was a "wise business decision" for a cemetery trying to make general improvements.

Swell.

"Charlie was very upset," says his stepmother, Marjorie Eick, of Overlea. "He'd worked there 14 years." Luckily, he's found a job with another cemetery, nearby Gardens of Faith on Lillian Holt Drive.

Tommy, who was making $7.50 an hour at Parkwood, has not been so lucky so far. There's one job possibility -- at a cemetery in southeastern Baltimore County, three bus transfers away from the house he shares with his mother on Gittings Avenue.

"I'd like him to be closer to home," says Catherine Horst. "He misses Parkwood terribly. He said to me the other day, 'I have no enthusiasm.' How could he have?"

Tommy still smiles, though. I have a feeling he'll find a new job. He says he'd like something that takes him outdoors. The pay rate doesn't seem to matter much.

"It's not the important thing," says his mother. "It's the sense of responsibility, of self-worth he felt when he was working."

Hang in there, Tommy Horst. We'll find you something.

Correction: In Wednesday's TJI, Joey Amalfitano misspelled his vacation spot in New York. It's one word, not two: Southampton. Sorry.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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