Rebuilding hope, home on west side Community: Volunteers reconstruct a house gutted by a 1995 fire and looted by vandals.

December 28, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Beulah Wilbur goes home today.

More than three years after her West Baltimore rowhouse was damaged by fire and stripped bare by rogues and vandals, the Baltimore crossing guard will move back to the place she had lived since 1962.

"I never expected I would make it back," says Wilbur, a 71-year-old widow. "I'm so grateful to everyone who has helped."

Her return is made possible because her plight captured the imagination of dozens of volunteers -- local college students, building contractors and employees at Browning-Ferris Industries Corp. The country's second-largest waste hauler donated more than $30,000 to purchase a furnace, cabinets, windows and plumbing.

"We're not in the business of building or rebuilding houses, but I've learned more about construction in the last year than I'll ever need to know," says Bonnie Wilson, BFI's community affairs manager for the Baltimore area. "I've also learned that there are a lot of wonderful people outthere who want to help."

Wilbur came to BFI's attention about 18 months ago, when she wrote the company a letter asking if it could donate a container for the debris from her charred and vandalized house at the corner of Pratt and Gilmor streets.

Wilson visited the home and saw that the longtime city school crossing guard needed more than a free container for trash. She suggested that fixing Wilbur's home become a community project for BFI, earning the support and assistance of George Hudnet, BFI's vice president of business development.

Wilbur's house troubles began two years before BFI got involved -- in August 1995, when the house next to hers on Gilmor Street caught fire. It spread to three other homes on the block, heavily damaging the second and third floors of Wilbur's place.

She and her 89-year-old mother, who uses a wheelchair, were forced to move. Within a day, vandals had attacked the house -- stealing anything they could sell. Some windows were smashed; others were stolen. Ceilings and walls were ripped open to more easily removed copper pipes. Kitchen cabinets were carted away.

Marvels Wilbur: "I couldn't believe all of the damage that was done so quickly."

A few months before the fire, Wilbur's insurance company had canceled her policy, saying that break-ins there had made her house too unsafe to continue coverage.

A lawyer volunteered his time to try to recover money from the insurance company covering the house where the fire began.

"We lost," says Wilbur, who was left with nothing. Everything she had owned was either burned or stolen, and she lives on her late husband's small pension and her crossing guard salary at nearby Steuart Hill Elementary School.

When local media reported Wilbur's plight, volunteers began pouring onto Gilmor Street to help.

Before BFI stepped in, Joe Greaver of Harview Roofing put on a roof free of charge. Students from the Naval Academy, Towson University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County tore out debris and scraped soot off the walls. St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church and Associated Catholic Charities helped recruit volunteers.

Contractors such as Stan Arnold and Mike Maher donated their services along the way. When city inspectors demanded a new wall for the third floor a couple of weeks ago, Mark Callahan of Harkins Builders stepped in to do the work. Pyle Fence Co. will soon build a fence in the back yard, Wilbur says.

"It's been wonderful," Wilbur says, standing in her renovated kitchen. "I just look around and know that this couldn't have happened without everyone helping."

Not too long ago, the city gave Wilbur 90 days to bring the house up to code standard, threatening to tear it down Friday, as they had done to two other homes damaged in the 1995 fire.

"Without BFI and Bonnie Wilson's help, the house would be gone for sure," Wilbur says. "They've been so kind to me."

This afternoon, Wilbur will finish packing up her belongings in the house she has been renting with her handicapped nephew on Lehman Street near Frederick Elementary School. Her mother died in 1996. She will move back to the home where she spent five years caring for her mother and lived with her husband, Harold, who died in 1991 after suffering a stroke.

"I'm glad Mrs. B. is coming back," says Butch Banks, who lived next door to Wilbur until the fire and manages a neighborhood bar, the Virgo Lounge. "I missed her on the corner."

Wilbur won't be returning to her job as a crossing guard at Steuart Hill Elementary right away.

For three years after the fire, she took the bus to her post every morning and afternoon, seeing school children safely across Pratt Street. A couple of months ago, after becoming dizzy and noticing numbness in her face, Wilbur fell on the bus.

Doctors discovered a tumor and a cyst in her brain. Now on sick leave from her crossing-guard position, Wilbur will enter University of Maryland Medical Center for surgery soon. She hopes to go back to work in the fall.

Says Wilbur: "When I get out of the surgery, I'm going to be able to get better where I'm supposed to -- in my own house."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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