Tom Horst has new job, and he's happy


August 12, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

Tom Horst pruned green shoots off a magnolia tree in Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens yesterday morning, and looking high and low through Baltimore County, you probably would not have found a happier man. Back to work under the sun, leather gloves on his hands, pruning shears in his palm, his name embroidered on a patch on his shirt, a big day of mulching and raking ahead of him - that put the smile on his face again.

Getting into uniform at Dulaney Valley was a big deal for him. Here's why:

For 24 years, Horst worked at another cemetery, Parkwood, in Northeast Baltimore. Mainly, he cut grass there. He was born 53 years ago with a mild form of cerebral palsy, which affects his speech and his general coordination. He was a loyal, determined employee who knew his physical limitations and managed to work around them. He went to work every day, rain or shine.

Then, in early June, the big company that took over Parkwood a few years ago hired a grass-cutting concern - "outsourcing" in the lexicon of the board room - and laid off Horst and another grass cutter, a 36-year-old mentally retarded man named Charlie Eick.

"It was a business decision," said Robert T. Nuckolls, president of the cemetery, who claimed ignorance of Horst's and Eick's respective handicaps when I spoke with him last month. Not that such insight would have mattered to Nuckolls or the Louisiana-based corporation that owns Parkwood, Stewart Enterprises Inc. Even so, laying off the grass cutters, Nuckolls said, was a "wise business decision."


It's hard to imagine that Tom Horst, Charlie Eick and two other laid-off workers, who made $7.50 an hour at Parkwood, could be more costly - or less reliable - than a grass-cutting contractor. But, even so, how "wise" is it for a cemetery company - or any company, for that matter - to be dropping longtime workers with special needs to increase profits? And can any boost to margin offset the drop in your community standing? Maybe Nuckolls, with his bleat about a "wise business decision," was more trenchant than I thought: When you're a big company like Stewart, with more than 120 cemeteries around the country, what happens to a handful of workers at the very bottom of the bean pile doesn't matter a whit.

Tom Horst went into a sulk. He sorely missed his job at Parkwood and the routine of taking the bus each day from the house he shares with his 81-year-old widowed mother in North Baltimore.

"The loss of his job was starting to affect him," says his niece, Lisa Cain. "His smile left, he felt worthless and depression was knocking on the door. He's a stubborn man, ... and he was sure it was time to crawl under the rock and let things happen."

Then, after Horst's story appeared in TJI July 24, the phones rang. Gardens of Faith cemetery in Rosedale, which had hired Charlie Eick, offered Tom Horst a maintenance job. So did Foreign Motors Subaru/Kia on Belair Road. So did Dulaney Valley, the 70-acre cemetery in Timonium. Brian Chisholm, the superintendent of maintenance there, was familiar with Tom Horst.

"I worked as a funeral director for 20 years," he says, "and I knew Tom from whenever we went to Parkwood. I knew him as a real hard worker, a man with a good work ethic. He has limitations because of his coordination but there are many things he can do. I always saw him pushing a mower at Parkwood. The vault truck drivers, who service all the cemeteries, would always say of Tom and Charlie [Eick] that, whenever it rained, they were always the last workers to come in from the rain."

Horst's first day at Dulaney Valley was Aug. 3. "He showed up at 7:10 a.m. for an 8 o'clock start and he worked through his breaks," says cemetery owner John Armiger, who offered Horst the job.

"I like it a lot," says Horst, reaching for the magnolia shoots. "Takes me 35 minutes to get here by bus. Fella who works here named Bobby picks me up on York Road and gives me a ride [from the bus stop to Dulaney Valley]. I cut grass and trim bushes, rake up clippings. It's nice. I leave about 4 o'clock. Bobby gives me a ride to the bus stop."

He says he works at the same hourly rate as that at Parkwood, and will be eligible for better benefits in two months.

We shook hands under the magnolia tree. Then Tom Horst pulled his gloves on and went back to work.

Letter from a friend

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