BALTIMORE COUNTY swore in its new government yesterday, with historic and uplifting language that will linger through generations to come or the day after tomorrow, whichever comes first.
Maybe the highlight was when the new county sheriff, R. Jay Fisher, took the oath of office from Clerk of the Circuit Court Suzanne Mensh. The oath calls for Fisher "to execute the office of sheriff of Baltimore County."
What Fisher actually swore was "to execute the sheriff of Baltimore County."
Or maybe the rhetorical highlight was that point in the soaring inaugural address of Jim Smith, the new county executive, when he thanked the Overlea Caterers for lunch.
"Ask not what your country can do for you" it was not.
On the other hand, yesterday's inauguration ceremonies were warm and amiable and earnest, and comforting in a tricky time, and historic in a way that still boggles the mind. In the year 2002, Kenneth N. Oliver became the first African-American in history to become a Baltimore County councilman.
"A historical day," Oliver said in brief remarks to the big crowd at the Towson Center Arena. He paused for a moment, as though collecting his emotions, and called it "an awesome responsibility. ... I truly understand that responsibility. Martin did it. Malcolm did it. They are big shoes to fill."
Oliver's swearing-in was only part of the imagery of an increasingly cosmopolitan county. The day's speakers included the Rev. Charles T. Sembly of United Bethel AME Church, Bhai Jagmohamji of the Metropolitan Sikh Association, Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Padmanabha S. Joshi of the Greater Baltimore Indo-American Temple.
Joshi called the mixed gathering "like the beads of a beautiful necklace."
And then the Great Expectations group, from Patapsco High School, finished the symbolism by singing "I Am American." They happen to be Americans of various backgrounds.
All of this is recorded not merely to paint a nice Norman Rockwell suburban portrait, but to remind ourselves of a little history. It was not always this way in Baltimore County.
In the last half of the 20th century, this was where thousands of families ran to put the city's changing racial picture behind them. It's the place that produced Spiro Agnew, whose excoriation of black community leaders after the 1968 riots won him a place in the White House. It's the place where Dale Anderson sent out signals that blacks weren't welcome, a place that a federal commission then described as a "white noose" strangling the city.
Jim Smith takes over a far more embracing county. But it's also a place that, as departing County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger knew, has a different set of problems: neighborhoods showing their age; pockets of poverty and narcotics traffic and crime that didn't exist before; and a changing image.
Smith's "job is to get people, and get businesses, to come back to the county," Del. John Arnick said yesterday. "This is a real good guy. He was an excellent judge, a very fair judge, a guy who listens. But you look at places like Dundalk and Essex, and Catonsville and Arbutus, and they need a lot of help.
"Dutch made a good start tearing down some slums in those areas. He had the right idea. But people hold onto images. Now you hear them say, `Baltimore County's just Baltimore City with grass. And Harford County's just Baltimore County with trees.' In other words, we've paved over a lot of stuff, and a lot of it's gotten old and has to be built back up."
Jim Smith knows this. The new county executive has lived in the county his entire life and served on the County Council before he became a judge. Those who know him well call him thoughtful and deliberate. His inaugural nod to the Overlea Caterers doesn't offer much rhetorical flourish, but it signals his sincerity.
One of Smith's aides, remembering William Donald Schaefer dipping into the aquarium seal pool and Dutch Ruppersberger showing off his physique to publicize clean water at the county's Miami Beach, said no one should expect such a display from Smith.
"He'll be fine," Ruppersberger said as yesterday's crowd began to leave. "Did I give him any advice? Yeah, follow your instincts. Listen when people talk to you. Put good people around you, and be real clear on what you expect from them."