Dundalk true-blue in marking Fourth

Fair: Faithful volunteers make enclave's Independence Day celebration worth a visit home.

July 02, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Like a man on a mission, 85-year-old Thomas Aubrey Clark steered his bicycle through the muggy mornings this week to the center of old Dundalk.

There, Clark joined hundreds of other behind-the-scenes volunteers preparing for their community's Heritage Fair, a three-day Fourth of July gathering that is possibly one of the largest in the nation.

"I put up fences and built ticket booths," said the wiry Clark. "I do anything to help the neighborhood."

For 65 years, Dundalk has thrown this party. Last year, more than 75,000 people attended. In 1991, the New York Times featured a front-page picture of Dundalk's Fourth of July parade, a salute to Smalltown, USA, and the values still running strong in this eastern Baltimore County village.

To some, the fair is a colorful, somewhat corny, salute to an America whose time has passed, a faded Norman Rockwell. On opening day, for instance, a recording of the late Hollywood hero John Wayne leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and Kate Smith is joined by fair goers in singing "God Bless America."

"There aren't too many dry eyes in the crowd at that point," said Robert A. Fogle, a steel worker and fair chairman. "If people don't like our values, tough. In the parade, most guys stand up and place their hands over their hearts when the American flag passes. That's how we grew up, those values got us through the good and bad times."

In Dundalk, Independence Day is filled with rich voices -- telling what it was like floating under a parachute into the nighttime hell of France or what it was like raising a family during the Depression. To residents, the holiday is a symbol of a vanishing America.

"My grown children visit home twice a year, Christmas and the Fourth of July," said Jeanie Jung. "It's about family and togetherness, we hang on to those bits and pieces as long as we can."

Surrounded by scores of rides and food stalls in a park and adjacent school field, the musical group Grass Roots will perform tonight on the main stage. Fabian, a 1960s heartthrob, will take the stage tomorrow night and singer Gene Pitney will appear Sunday.

The parade will begin Saturday at 8: 30 a.m. and run several hours. Fireworks will start at dusk near Merritt Boulevard and Wise Avenue. There is no rain date for either event, a fair official said.

Once a blue-collar bastion of good-paying jobs when steel was king, the Dundalk area now faces creeping social ills. But beneath the funnel cakes, parade floats and fireworks is a never-say-die pride in the community of 65,000 residents.

Perhaps nothing reflects that stronger than the volunteers who plan and operate the fair. Among them are a pediatrician, a school principal and laborers who use a week of their vacation time.

"We get out here and work, we know work," said fair official Bruce Mills, a retired Internal Revenue Service auditor who helped conduct the investigation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agnew, facing charges he accepted bribes as Baltimore County Executive, governor and vice president, resigned from office in 1973 after a no-contest plea in Baltimore federal court.

In Mills, organizers believe they have a trustworthy hand on the fair's cash box. Of this year's annual $185,000 budget, about half is expected to be met through the gate, Mills said.

Fogle and Mills boast of conducting only one meeting a year -- a picnic where the volunteers are honored. Tom Clark and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, are among those who attend that event.

"Like a lot of my neighbors, I like to work; done it all my life," Clark said. "I was in front of one of them old hot furnaces at Bethlehem Steel 31 years. I guess I have helped with the fair since I was 70 or so.

"It keeps me healthy, and my wife Mary Elizabeth helps out too. she takes tickets."

Clark has been married four times, his three previous wives having passed away, he said. He's had heart bypass surgery, and his prostate cancer is in remission.

Volunteer leaders swap stories about previous Heritage Fairs and their performers. When Gary U.S. Bonds, a 1960s pop singer, appeared at the fair, he and his wife and daughter wanted some steamed crabs. On a Fourth of July weekend, when crabs seem nearly impossible to find in Maryland, one of the fair leaders located a few dozen, and Bonds and his family went home to New York happy.

Fogle also recalls the performance by the singing group the Drifters.

"They were so popular and entertaining people didn't want them to leave," he said. "So at 2 a.m., they stood out under a street lamp at Playfield Road and Shipway across from the park and sang until they had to leave to catch a plane."

Fair official Thomas Toporovich says organizers hope to make the fair larger next year, involving younger leaders in the planning.

"This is a community with its own flag, own newspaper, a sister city in Ireland," said Toporovich. "Community activism is common among the people who live here. With us, what you see is what you get."

Pub Date: 7/02/99

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