David Scherr, 98, known as his family's historian

March 31, 2002|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

During those sprawling, brawling days of boom and bust in Baltimore in the 1920s, a boy had to hustle to stay alive, Uncle Dave Scherr would say.

After school, he had to work to eat, delivering newspapers or Western Union telegrams, making shoes or stevedoring at a munitions factory. In the summer, he fought with his fists across three ethnic neighborhoods to get to and from the pool at Patterson Park - because they didn't much like Jews.

Then, there was the tale of that terrible night in 1924 aboard the steamboat Three Rivers.

David Scherr had lived all these stories and more when he died Friday of heart failure at Montgomery General Hospital at age 98. A resident of Alfred House Elder Care home in Rockville, he previously had lived for many years in Takoma Park. But his soul always resided in East Baltimore.

"He had more stories than I can remember - a million and one stories - about Baltimore in those early years," said his nephew Royal Parker. "And he would tell them in a good ol' Southern drawl that was just captivating. What a guy! What a life!"

As the 20th century progressed, Mr. Scherr became the favored uncle of a large family that sprang from a cold-water rowhouse in an East Baltimore enclave of immigrant Jews along Lombard Street known as "Corned Beef Row."

The self-appointed historian among 10 siblings, he passed down the saga of those early years with humor and a dramatic flair as the family grew to more than 300 people.

"He saw John Philip Sousa in concert and watched Babe Ruth hit a home run," recalled his son, Ed Scherr of Potomac. "He saw the Wright Brothers fly over Baltimore, and sat a couple rows from Franklin Roosevelt at a Washington Senators game. ... His life was a collection of these kind of stories."

He also was among the last survivors of one of the great calamities in the city's history: the fire aboard the excursion boat Three Rivers as it headed up the Chesapeake Bay on the night of July 4, 1924. The wooden paddle-wheeler burned down to its steel hull, killing 10 people, including five members of the Evening Sun Newsboys' Band on their way home from a concert in Crisfield.

Mr. Scherr, then 20, played trombone with the band. In the blaze, he lost a $25 horn that had been given to him by his parents.

"He asked all of his friends that night not to tell his parents about the fire," his son recalled, "because $25 was a lot of money back then - especially on my grandfather's salary as a shirt tailor - and he was afraid they'd kill him for losing the horn. But his picture was in The Sun the next day, so there was no getting around it."

Two years later, Mr. Scherr met Lillian Rosengarten while roller-skating in the neighborhood. They married a short time later. Mrs. Scherr died in 1997.

Quitting his job in a Baltimore shoe factory, he bought a corner grocery store in Washington and moved with his new bride into the apartment upstairs. The couple expanded their holdings, buying two more stores in Brentwood and Kensington, and struggled through the Depression before quitting the business in 1942.

After that, Mr. Scherr worked in liquor stores. He retired from Caps Liquors in southwest Washington in 1969 but continued to work there part time until he was 95.

Mr. Scherr traveled regularly by bus to Baltimore to visit friends or attend family reunions, where he was always an honored guest.

Ed Scherr recalled his father's pride and bemusement at how far the family had come from its hardscrabble beginnings in East Baltimore - where he got no further than the eighth grade and took his first job before he was 9.

The offspring of the 10 Scherr children include at least four dentists, two lawyers, a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a computer engineer, two newsmen and a rock star. Adam Duritz of the band Counting Crows is a grandnephew of Mr. Scherr.

"One of the last big events Dad went to was a wedding reception for Adam's sister in Northern Virginia a couple years ago," his son said. "And the minute the old man came into the room, he was the star. He was surrounded by people the rest of the night."

Services for Mr. Scherr will be held tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. at King David Memorial Gardens, 7482 Lee Highway, Falls Church, Va.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Sheila Petrie of Chesapeake Beach; two brothers, Julius Scherr of Baltimore and Morris Scherr of Boca Raton, Fla.; a sister, Selma Feldman of Virginia Beach, Va.; three grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.

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