Names, dashes, friends, neighborhoods

Books of the Region

March 16, 2003|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

At the start of The Legacies of Western Maryland College, by K. Douglas Beakes (Gateway, 183 pages, $5), is a photo of the author. How proudly he smiles, this being his third book so far about alma mater? Not on your tintype. He glowers.

Beakes, a small-town boy, entered Western Maryland College in 1942, went off to war, and graduated in 1948. Today, his mind is a movie screen for rerun after rerun of student days and nights. But, since last May 20's name change ("a modern-day academic tragedy"), Western Maryland College is no more. Today, the campus on the hill, with its 136 years' worth of buildings, arenas and parking lots -- the biggest thing in Westminster -- calls itself McDaniel College. Beakes calls it "the New College."

Time moves on, Beakes concedes. WMC did not preserve Old Main (torn down in 1959). A 12-man football coaching staff has replaced his generation's two-man. Beakes only hopes the new era can create mnemonic legacies to match those of Willey's Barber Shop, the (alcoholic) Pit, and the night he was going to slide down a snowy campus slope when up walked, to stand behind him on his skis and ride along, Lowell Ensor, WMC's president.

Beakes argues not; neither does he rant. He keens.

The Wednesday writers meet then, at Country Club of Maryland in Towson, and listen to what one or another has written since last time. No assignments, no mode or topic limits; the 40 or so members even claim to forgo criticism. Example, and momentum, release them from years of mere talk as outlet.

JoAnne Murphy edited the 105 short pieces that make up Filling in the Dash -- (The Wednesday Writers, 214 pages, $14.95 softbound). As often in memoirs, the most frequent themes are childhood, first love, a death. Here and there, a point sticks, or a scene -- Betsy, the new girl who bravely sounds a neighbor's doorbell (he plays third for the Orioles) and asks for his autograph. There he is, fetching a photo and inscribing it, "To Patsy." Or the cordless phone, call-waiting, call-forwarding, caller ID -- is there telephone addiction? Or the widow who has strewn some of her husband's ashes at place after place he loved.

On a gravestone, "Writers" reminds us, the dates of birth and death are secondary. What matters is the interval between -- what went on in that dash.

Another approach, in the age of the recollective self-interview, is that taken by Paul M. Baker in La Famiglia Americana -- The American Family (Adeas, 256 pages, $20 softbound). The original name (also his middle name) was Mugavero; his mother's people were from Abruzzi; his father's, from Sicily. After high school teaching, and playing and coaching sports, Baker lives now in Easton, but his upbringing was solid Baltimore.

Baker has had a thousand good friends. He salutes Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. and Nick Mangione, Benny Trotta, Gaetano (Guy) Sardella and Vincent Lazzara (Vince Dundee). The son of a railroad clerk who kept all 1,864 weekly issues of Life magazine, Baker grew up on the west side, not in Little Italy, but both were essentially downtown. Observant, and analytical (the Old Way vs. the Melting Pot), Famiglia is not only personal recall but social history.

Baltimore and other cities sometimes fancy themselves as a collection of neighborhoods. But what sort of neighborhoods? Notable for community spirit or antagonisms, for cordiality to strangers or covenant exclusivity? In Baltimore, as elsewhere, repressions and rejections have been many. Always, external influences must be factored in. But say this: Ours is a city of greater intergroup tolerance, more social justice, than it was in 1959, when Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. was founded.

BNI's focus has been on housing -- to wise up the residents; to halt the fester of malpractices by builders, sellers, slumlords. From ghettoization by race to white flight, from blockbusting to flipping, the scene has been a sordid one. In 1968, Congress mandated fair housing; only then did General Assembly and City Council legislate it (as several big names in construction and ownership were haled into court and, however briefly, shamed).

Michael L. Mark, retired dean of Towson University's Graduate School, tells the story of this civic asset in But Not Next Door: Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.: The First 40 Years (BNI, 139 pages, $5 softbound). It is a moment, when Edward Holmgren, the first of NBI's three executive directors in that span (all from outside), persuades the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and the Real Estate Brokers of Baltimore to become BNI general members. Another moment: when John Mackey, the Colts star, moves from city to upper-class white county suburb.

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