This friend made a difference

January 26, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

IT SEEMS LIKE only a handful of Saturdays ago I walked out my front gate and was met by my neighbor Mac McCarty, his wife Sara and other Charles Village stalwarts. They were energetically cleaning the leaves from the sidewalks and alleys.

This past week I got word that Mac had died of an aneurysm. His passing was a shock and a sadness, but I'd like to consider what he did for our little neighborhood he so enriched.

Charles Village in the 1960s was very much the neighborhood next to the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus and this was the Animal House era of fraternities. The combination of fraternity houses and staid, North Baltimore families made for lively social combustion.

I can well recall one October evening when I was being chaperoned dutifully back to my Guilford Avenue home by family friend Dorothy Croswell. As we walked down the 2900 block of Calvert Street, we heard noise at the corner. Its source was a huge, turn of the century mansion and a fraternity toga party in full flower.

We both peered in the double-wide front door across the home's porch. And, of course, one of the boys had shed his toga. Dorothy, ever the letter writer, fired off an impassioned missive to the Hopkins president. The letter did no good. The boys stayed and tormented us locals, at least those of us not on their party lists. And when the house was about to cave in, the fraternity exited.

Then Mac and Sara came to the rescue. By 1972, its vacant and miserable condition yanked the neighborhood into a real, honest, worrisome funk. If nothing else, the presence of a once splendid city palace - it was built by Baltimore patent medicine magnate Dr. Merville Carter who was later an executive of the Southern Hotel - now brought on a case of fear. Could anything save this white elephant, its copper-trimmed roof, turrets, carriage house and porches big enough for a bowling alley? With this house rotting, where would our home, a short block away, be heading?

Mac and Sara bought the wreck. The sagging steps and porch got fixed; the roof's many holes were repaired. And, best of all, a family lived there, with four happy daughters and a big sheep dog. Then came all sorts of flowers, overflowing the lot. At one point the McCartys went on a lavender-planting spree and put in a whole border of it along Calvert Street.

What I liked about their 30-years' worth of effort at Calvert and 29th was their casual and delightful approach. They didn't over-restore the house. In fact, some of its too-many rooms never got completely fixed. But they loved their neighborhood, lived in it and told me if ever I needed a few more flowers, cut theirs - they had plenty.

It was just six Saturdays ago that Mac was in my own home. We were talking about how drafty old windows can be. He inspected mine, pointed out the gaps between the glass and the frames and properly suggested that if I had the right kind of putty, my dining room might not be such a wind tunnel.

That day, I thought, as comforting as our ancient homes are, what would life in Baltimore be without a neighbor like Mac McCarty?

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