The Good Sport

Athletic, driven and eager to please, a young Robert Ehrlich always played to win, and made the most of some big breaks

October 02, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Like all politicians, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has them: those authorized tales from youth that - though twisted or embellished over the years - help define the person he is today.

There is the humble-beginnings-in-a-rowhouse-in-Arbutus legend. There is the story of how he played bruising weekend league football with grown men when he was only 13. And there is this one - about his first days in what at the time seemed like another world to him, Baltimore's exclusive Gilman School.

A fellow student at the highly competitive private school, wearing the required coat and tie and, presumably, a sneer, approaches the 14-year-old son of a car salesman between classes. "You don't belong here," he says.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Oct. 2 Today section about gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich's childhood incorrectly stated his mother's maiden name. Nancy Ehrlich's name before marriage was Nancy Bottorf. The Sun regrets the error.

Bobby Ehrlich, already close to 6 feet tall by then, takes one step toward the student.

"I am here," he says.

Indeed he was, by virtue of a scholarship - the first of many breaks Ehrlich would get in his youth, partly from connections, partly through sheer luck, partly because of what influential people saw in him.

They define it as "drive," a confident, intense, even fiery focus that - while most evident on the football and baseball fields - went beyond that.

With it, he would quickly fit in at Gilman, graduate with athletic honors and go on to Princeton University, Wake Forest University law school, the Maryland General Assembly and Congress.

Now, at 44, he is here: in the thick of a heated race for governor with Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - one in which he is portraying himself, in contrast to his opponent's "life of privilege," as a working-class guy who hasn't forgotten the rowhouse in Arbutus from which he came.

In reality, that rowhouse - purchased in 1967 for $11,200, worth more than $100,000 now - is a comfortable three-bedroom home in a solid working-class neighborhood. His parents, though of moderate means, gave their only child the kind of care, attention and dedication that may be the best kind of "privilege" of all. And when times got tough, there was more than one well-heeled guardian angel who appeared to help them - and Bobby - out.

He's been very, very fortunate in getting breaks in life," his father, Bob Ehrlich Sr., admits. "But he has also done a really good job of taking advantage of them."

Nancy Krauss was the seventh of seven children, the daughter of a small-town police officer in Pennsylvania, and she grew up dreaming of becoming a concert pianist.

Robert Ehrlich Sr. was the sixth of six children, the son of a Baltimore city police officer, and he grew up with no definite career goals.

She, unable to afford college, went to business school and became a secretary. He joined the Marines and, after serving in the Korean War, got a job selling cars in Arbutus.

They met as teen-agers in church. She sang in the choir, and "every time I looked up, he was looking at me," she said. But it wasn't until 1954 that they went on a date, to see a movie called The Moon is Blue - "very racy for its day," she recalls.

In 1956, they married.

On Nov. 25, 1957, Robert Leroy Ehrlich Jr. was born in Baltimore's Bon Secours Hospital, weighing 8 pounds, 3 ounces.

Big even then, he would loom large throughout his childhood - big enough to catch a fastball from his dad at age 5; big enough to be as tall as his Little League coaches at age 12; big enough at 13 to play football with beer-swilling construction workers on a team called the Arbutus Big Red.

For the Ehrlichs, the newborn was all they had hoped for.

Even before marriage, they had agreed to have one child, Bob Sr. says. "God smiled and gave us the best one there is," says Nancy.

She describes Bobby as a low-maintenance infant, pleasant and, as he grew up, eager to please. "He never gave us a sleepless night," she says.

Living in a small apartment in Arbutus - the Ehrlichs moved into the rowhouse when Bobby was 12 - they tried to keep their finances on an even keel, which was difficult with his father's up-and-down income.

"I never made a salary in my life. I always worked on commission," Bob Sr. says. "It was always feast or famine. All my life, I never charged anything; I was always scared ... that I wouldn't have the money when the time came to pay."

Nancy stayed home - "None of this `working mother' stuff," her husband says - but, once Bobby was in bed, that's exactly what she did, typing for a local company. "I put him to bed at 10," she says, "and typed until 2."

When Bobby was 3, he was enrolled in a Lutheran school so he could be with other children, Nancy says. He attended Emmanuel Lutheran Christian Day School - strong on discipline and heavy on Scripture - through the sixth grade.

"I don't think they sent me there for the religion," the candidate says, "although that is what stuck."

By age 7, he was reading newspaper editorials, and he cried, his mother says (though he doesn't remember it) when Republican Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.