Past looms large for Owens and Gary Executive's toughness can serve as an asset as well as a liability

November 01, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It was 1958 and there was a dance at the Greenhaven fire station. "Big John" Gary was 14 years old, wearing a silver Elvis Presley jacket he bought for $50 at Seidel's in Glen Burnie.

One of Gary's drunken buddies started a brawl, and Gary threw himself into the scrap to break it up. A police officer mistook Gary for the troublemaker and slammed him against the wall, ripping his jacket.

Gary recalled that he cursed at the officer, who took him into custody, and Gary's military father was so angry at his son's mouthiness that he grounded him for two months.

Four decades later, John G. Gary is running for re-election as Anne Arundel County executive and his taste for fights and verbal attacks is still getting him into trouble. And he is still angry to find his back against the wall.

As Election Day nears, Gary acknowledges he's in an unexpectedly close race against Democrat Janet S. Owens that has focused on two issues: funding for schools and Gary's reputation as a bully who has picked too many fights.

Last spring, Gary lashed out at Superintendent Carol S. Parham, accusing her of endorsing the school board's padded budget request in exchange for a contract extension. Last year, he accused State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee of mishandling the county's drug asset forfeiture program.

Gary apologized to Parham, but pushed his fight with Weathersbee to the state prosecutor's office, demanding a criminal investigation, which turned up nothing.

In a recent interview, Gary said his upbringing in a tough blue-collar neighborhood with a father who punished him for lying taught him the habits -- dangerous for a politician -- of sticking up for himself and saying exactly what's on his mind.

"Certainly, as a political person, it has gotten me in trouble," Gary said. "But I can't do anything about it. My father raised me this way. I'd rather tell you the truth and have you dislike me than lie and have to live with myself."

There is a less charitable view of Gary's character.

"What character?" asked Weathersbee. "You mean that he opens up his mouth without thinking about it?"

O. James Lighthizer, who served as county executive from 1982 to 1990, said Gary's toughness has helped the county because he's pushed through important but unpopular projects, like building a jail.

"Say what you want about him, but John's got courage," said Lighthizer, a Democrat. "John does not shy away from difficult decisions, and that has helped him some and hurt him some."

Leaning back in his chair in the Arundel Center on a recent afternoon, as the sun set over the hulking parking garage that fills his view of the world, the 54-year-old Elvis fan-turned king of county Republicans told the story of his life and his political evolution.

Born in Baltimore, the son of a Navy warrant officer, Gary spent almost the first decade of his life moving from base to base -- a nomadic existence that took him to Trinidad, Tennessee, Florida and Indiana.

Gary was always big, earning the name "Big John" in middle school because he was 5 feet 8 inches and 160 pounds by age 12.

When he was about 9, his family bought its first home, in the Pasadena neighborhood of Greenhaven.

"It was a very tough neighborhood," Gary said. "If the kids from Riviera Beach came into Greenhaven, we'd beat them up. We'd have dances at the fire station, and if anybody said anything about your girlfriend, you'd pop them in the nose."

Gary recalled one time when his father, John Gary Sr., impressed on him the importance of telling the truth.

When John Jr. was about 10, he broke the crystal of his father's watch. He put it back on his father's dresser without saying a word, then denied knowing anything about it. When John Sr. found out the real story, he forced his son to pay three times the repair cost -- triple the price for the deceit.

After graduating from Glen Burnie High School in 1961 and marrying childhood friend Ruthanne Neighoff, Gary dropped out of the University of Maryland, College Park to take a job at the H. Chambers Co. interior design firm in Baltimore.

He rose through the company's ranks for about a decade before leaving to run his own company, the Drapery Specialist, in 1973.

Robert Hickman, president of H. Chambers, remembers Gary as a no-nonsense manager who wanted to control all aspects of his painting and wallpapering division.

Gary got his start in politics at age 22, when he and a Pasadena neighbor founded the Havenwood Improvement Association to lobby for street lights.

"At times, he can be a bit abrasive. But he's very aggressive and he always gets the job done," said Gregory A. Harthausen, a 58-year-old former police officer who formed the association with Gary.

Inspired by the hero's treatment he received for winning the street lights, Gary threw himself into local politics, switching from Democratic to the underdog Republican Party.

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