Touched with the spirit of James Rouse

Colleagues keep alive memories of the visionary with a heart

Out & About

April 28, 2002|By Edward Gunts | By Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Every April around James Rouse's birthday, friends and colleagues gather in Columbia for a buffet luncheon and Quaker-style meeting to share recollections about the famous urban visionary and how he touched their lives.

On Tuesday, over shrimp salad sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies, they traded stories about the man who gained national prominence as head of the Rouse Company and Enterprise Foundation, champion of cities, advocate for the poor.

The memorial service -- the seventh since Rouse's death at 81 on April 9, 1996, if you count an outdoor gathering at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on the day of his funeral -- took place in a sun-drenched meeting room at Kahler Hall, a community center in the "new town" he launched in the 1960s.

Some participants shared lighthearted anecdotes, marveling at his ability to do the "chicken dance" at a company picnic or his willingness to shuck oysters at a holiday party. One expressed delight about a rumor that his actor-grandson, Edward Norton, might be engaged to actress Selma Hayek.

Others related serious stories about his concern for the poor and his fighting spirit when the odds were against him.

Though she never met Rouse, Enterprise employee Joan Bisset said, his life inspired hers. "He obviously had a value system that went much beyond making money or building pretty buildings or creating cities where we can be entertained," she said. "I guess the challenge for each of us is to see if we can live out the vision that Mr. Rouse had."

'Better human beings'

Enterprise chairman and chief executive officer Bart Harvey presides over the memorial service every year as a way to keep Rouse's vision alive. As always, it began with Harvey reading an excerpt from the "speech book," a collection of talks made by Rouse during his long career. Those who seek to understand Rouse's vision consider it a bible of sorts.

This year's selection was from a 1976 lecture Rouse gave to a civic group in Ohio:

"The valid purpose of a civilization isn't to grow corn, or to build buildings, or build ships, or build industry, or to do any of these things," Rouse had told the Greater Columbus Council. "There can be only one clear central objective of a civilization, and that is to grow better human beings."

When Harvey finished speaking, others rose one by one to share their thoughts and memories.

Mary Jo Cress, a longtime Enterprise employee, told of an African-American woman who moved to Columbia 10 years ago because of Rouse's goal of creating a community free of racial bias. "She said, 'It has meant everything to me and my family. Our life would not have been the same anywhere else.' " Cress recalled. "That's the kind of reaction that he inspires from people all the time, even from those who didn't know him."

Most of the luncheon guests worked with Rouse or had some other connection to the man who packed several careers into one lifetime -- those of mortgage banker, developer, urban renewal expert, philanthropist, social architect. Among other achievements, he invented "festival markets" such as Boston's Faneuil Hall and Baltimore's Harborplace, built regional shopping centers and created Columbia, the planned community between Baltimore and Washington. Born on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he would have been 88 last Friday.

Helping the poor

More than one person noted that, even after retiring from one job, Rouse continued to work. After he stepped down as head of the Rouse Co., he and his wife, Patty, formed the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps build affordable housing and promotes community development in low-income neighborhoods around the country. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the organization has 350 employees working in 18 cities.

Diana Meyer said she believes her daughter's volunteerism in school can be traced to Rouse's decision to help the poor, when he could have gone off to a cushy retirement.

"I'm always reminding my children about you and Jim, Patty," Meyer told Mrs. Rouse during the service. "They could be sailing around the world, but they're working to rebuild communities."

Stickler for details

Rouse didn't tell people what to do, said Connie Matheson, but "individually and collectively, he gave us opportunities. With Patty, he gave us Enterprise. At the end of each day, we can look back and ask: Did another family get a home? Was another community made safer? That was all his vision."

He was a stickler for details, said Madeline Clarke, one of Enterprise's first employees. Clarke said she was reminded of that when she was putting out cookies for the luncheon.

"I thought to myself: I better make sure these cookies are right," she said. "That's the kind of thing he would have noticed. He always wanted us to strive for excellence."

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