Longtime activist Sieg to retire

Her causes included protecting graveyards, restricting adult stores

April 02, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Throughout more than 20 years of protecting graveyards and seeking to revive a children's theme park in Howard County, Barbara Sieg has listened to her husband's good-natured ribbing that she has "a full-time job that didn't pay anything."

Although Sieg hasn't held a paid position since 1967, she is "retiring" this year -- from the community activism field.

Sieg, who also led a battle to ban shops selling pornography from the county, says she will resign this spring from the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites Inc.

She also declined to become co-chairman of Friends of the Enchanted Forest, a grass-roots organization determined to save an abandoned amusement park of the same name.

The 62-year-old grandmother of 10, who says she wants to focus on writing about her experiences as an activist, compares her retirement to handing off a baton in a relay race.

"You're working hard, fast and committed," Sieg said. "But at some point, you have to hand off to someone who will go another mile. I'm happy to give the baton to someone else."

Those who have worked with Sieg say they will miss her energy, but they pledge to continue what she started.

"She's the one who sparked me to get it going," said Rick Lepski, co-chairman of Friends of the Enchanted Forest. "I owe it to her. I'm not going to let her dream die."

Sieg has had many dreams, including a girlhood wish to become a journalist. But her mother, who endured the Great Depression, preached job security and influenced her decision to become a secretary with the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1957.

In 1966, Sieg moved from Washington to Ellicott City's Dunloggin neighborhood with her husband, John, and a year later, she left the federal government to give birth to her first son.

Several years after the birth of her second son, Sieg joined the St. Johns Community Association and helped to turn away a proposal for a cement plant on Frederick Road.

She became president of the organization in 1985, when the group learned that the Whipps family cemetery in Ellicott City was being threatened by development.

Sieg worked vigorously with members of the Whipps family to save the graveyard and founded the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites Inc.

The coalition has helped strengthen preservation laws in the state, including persuading the state to make it a misdemeanor to buy, sell or transport for profit human remains or funerary objects that have been looted from graveyards.

Although two bills -- one of which would have required developers who upturn a cemetery to place a notice in a local newspaper -- failed last week in the General Assembly, Sieg estimates that the coalition has helped protect about 20 graveyards in the state.

Coalition President Jean Keenan said she marveled as Sieg battled an unyielding development industry and an unresponsive bureaucracy.

"We always hit stumbling blocks, but she fires ahead and doesn't stop," Keenan said. "She knows how to sit down and talk with the people in Annapolis."

One person Sieg has worked closely with is state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, who praised her effort.

"She's one of those selfless, unsung citizens who are quietly making a difference in the community," the Ellicott City Republican said. "I think the world of her."

In February, Sieg wrote an article in a local weekly, reminiscing about the Enchanted Forest theme park and urging residents to volunteer time and money to revive it.

The park, which opened in 1954 -- a year before Disneyland in California -- closed in 1989. It re-opened briefly in 1994, only to close again.

Although the park owner, Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust Co. in Linthicum, has remained mum about the possibility of resurrecting the park, dozens of parents and teen-agers have offered their services.

"I think it [Enchanted Forest] meant a lot to her," Lepski said of Sieg's desire to save the park. "Her soul is in the community, and I've never seen anyone more dedicated to the community."

But no one is perfect -- a fact Sieg readily acknowledges. She is the first to admit that she was wrong about her opposition to the construction of Route 100, which she originally believed would dump traffic onto local roads.

Sieg acknowledges that the November opening of the thoroughfare "hasn't been that bad."

She also drew criticism when a group she co-founded in 1997, Howard County Alliance to Maintain Community Values, lobbied county officials to restrict adult entertainment businesses to industrial and manufacturing districts, away from residential areas.

But most of those industrial zones are in the U.S. 1 corridor, and many residents who lived near the corridor complained that the alliance's proposal smacked of geographic segregation.

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