Event honors `legends'

Wax museum celebrates the careers and lives of 4 black Baltimoreans

February 21, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

With a bit of prodding from his wife Blanche, Mark Powell will tell you about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Not what he's read about it; what he remembers.

"My father took me down to Baltimore and Hanover streets to watch the fire," Powell said. "It was a Sunday afternoon. My mother stayed home to pack so we could go to Pennsylvania, because we were afraid the whole city might burn down."

Powell was 6 years old at the time. Next week he'll turn 102. Yesterday, he was honored as one of Baltimore's Living Legends in a ceremony at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

"This is really a kickoff to our Grand Tour later this week," said organizer Thomas Saunders, whose annual tour will take about 2,000 people, mainly schoolchildren, to African-American historical sites in the city Thursday and Friday.

"[The tour] honors people from the past. We have this ceremony to honor people who are still with us," he said.

In addition to Powell, honored as a centenarian, the ceremony recognized music professor Reppard Stone, surgeon Claudia Lynn Thomas and computer engineer Mark E. Dean.

Stone, 69, grew up in Macon, Ga., learning to play jazz from Army band musicians stationed at a nearby base during World War II.

After graduating from high school, he accepted a scholarship to Savannah State College. But during that summer, the professor who got him the scholarship transferred to what was then Morgan State College. Stone followed, coming to Baltimore in 1949. He never left.

He stayed busy, going to classes during the day, playing piano and trombone at night. "There were nightclubs all over the place," he said. "I was backup for a trombonist at the Royal [Theater], so I played there a few times."

After college, Stone taught music in elementary school. "I liked the hours because you taught in the morning, and the rest of the day was free for my music," he said.

He decided to further his studies and received a master's degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and began teaching at Frederick Douglass High School in 1970. A Ph.D. at Catholic University followed, and in 1980 Stone joined the faculty at Howard University, where he stayed until 1991.

Proud of his students

Although Stone has backed up some of the top names in jazz and done arrangements for singer Billy Eckstine and pianist Thelonious Monk, he said he takes greatest pride in his students.

"They are my legacy," he said of people who have spread his influence around the world. "They have done so many things I never even dreamed of. If I did anything for them, it was to give them confidence in their competence."

Dean, 42, was in town to receive the Black Engineer of the Year award at that group's annual convention. Head of IBM's Austin Research Laboratory and a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, he holds, or has pending, more than 30 patents.

Thomas, a New York native, came to Baltimore in 1971 after graduating from Vassar College to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School. An orthopedic surgeon, she is on the faculty at Hopkins.

Just getting started

Although that gives her almost 30 years of association with the city, she's a beginner by Powell's standards. He has had various jobs, including butler and chauffeur, before spending a decade managing public housing projects in the 1960s, then managing a Cherry Hill apartment complex.

Powell retired when he was 91. "I'm looking for a job," he said.

"You can see he's still got a sense of humor," said Blanche, 86, his wife for 62 years.

Mayor Martin O'Malley told the crowd of about 200 that during last year's campaign, Powell threw a party for him behind his Ashburton home.

"It was a `Rally in the Alley for O'Malley,' " the mayor said. "I had never met Mr. Powell, and I knew he was 101, so I wasn't sure what sort of shape he was in. I went up to him and thanked him for having the rally.

"He told me, `And I got a whole lot of grief from my neighbors because of it,' " O'Malley said.

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