Renaming parkway doesn't end old habits

March 09, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

LAST WEEK, columnist Jacques Kelly mentioned how "Washingtonians get a twitchy feeling when they spot the Gladys Noon Spellman Memorial sign" on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

I wonder how many motorists buzzing by that sign designating the 38-mile stretch of road, the Gladys Noon Spellman Parkway, remember or have even heard of the Maryland congresswoman for whom it presumably honors.

Just this week, Richard Rothstein, writing in The New York Times, lamented that many of today's students are "woefully ignorant of history," and cites a 1999 survey that asked college students who commanded our nation's forces at the Battle of Yorktown.

The most common answer, he reports, was Ulysses S. Grant. Actually, it was George Washington. "In 1986," writes Rothstein, "the government tested 17-year-olds in history; most said the Civil War started before 1850."

Apparently, immortality and asphalt seem to go together, and Maryland is hardly the only state in the Union that practices this expedient notion of honoring citizens it deems worthy by naming highways or bridges after them.

However, it's no guarantee that a person's historical standing is significantly improved by having a roadway named after him or her. It is, in the minds of many, a ticket to obscurity, or a tribute vanity.

To wit, I'm sure travelers racing across the Susquehanna River Bridge on I-95 also must wonder as to the identity of Millard E. Tydings. (He was, for the record, a four-time conservative New Deal senator from Havre de Grace, and father of U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings.)

The same can be said of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac on U.S. 301. A ferryboat plying across the Chesapeake until the coming of the Bay Bridge helped perpetuate the memory of Nice (1877-1941) for Marylanders.

But, who today can recall the former Maryland governor with the funny middle name of Whinna? A bridge hardly does it for me.

And what about the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge across the Chesapeake Bay, more commonly called the Bay Bridge? Not even TV or radio traffic reporters call it the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, because if they did, most viewers probably wouldn't know what they're talking about.

Here's another example. Route 2, known as Ritchie Highway, which has become a lasting metaphor for commercial development run amok, commemorates the life and works of four-term Gov. Albert C. Ritchie.

But what of Gladys Noon Spellman?

Spellman, a three-term Democrat, was a Prince George's County elementary school teacher, first elected to Congress in 1974 from the 5th District.

Known for providing top-notch constituent service, Spellman served on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. She also was chairwoman of the compensation and employee benefits subcommittee of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee.

Spellman was on the verge of re-election to a fourth term in 1980 when she suffered a heart attack during a visit to a Laurel shopping mall. She lapsed into an eight-year coma, never regaining consciousness, until dying June 19, 1988.

In 1981, after studying medical data and stating that Spellman was unable to take the oath of office, the House declared her seat vacant. It was the first time the House had taken such an action.

Later that year, Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who was elected in a special election to fill the vacancy, proposed the bill that changed the name of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the Gladys Noon Spellman Parkway.

"Questionable, this idea of renaming something in honor of Gladys Noon Spellman while though invalided, she is still around; dubious choosing the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which she had no special role in bringing about and only one end of which is in her old congressional district," said The Evening Sun.

"Would any sensible person want his or her name on a road where nowadays traffic backs up - or goes too fast, and people are killed or mutilated? In Prince George's County and Fifth Congressional District, where Mrs. Spellman's accomplishments are many, there must be some other sort of terrain feature, that, at the proper time, could fittingly bear the name of a person who labored long and well in the public's behalf," concluded the editorial.

In 1982, the House voted unanimously to rename the parkway, an action that was repeated by the Senate a year later. The measure was then signed into law by President Reagan.

"We have never liked placing the names of recent or living political figures on public-works projects. It should be left to history to determine if someone merits that type of remembrance," said an editorial in The Sun.

"The present designation, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is an accurate description of where the heavily traveled highway will take you. It is clear, concise, and a beacon of understanding on road maps for millions of tourists and visitors. A name change will provoke needless confusion. It's best to keep the B-W Parkway as the B-W Parkway. We are confident Mrs. Spellman would agree with us," concluded the editorial.

Old habits die hard, and even the signature of a president can't always change things. Around here, while meaning no slight to Spellman, folks still call it the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

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