20 years, tears of Turkey Trot

Fund-raiser: An Owings Mills man and 1,000 friends of friends keep up tradition and aid medical research.

November 28, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

On Thanksgiving morning 1983, Morton "Morty" Hyatt and his buddies from around the neighborhood did what they did almost every other morning: run a few miles along the side streets of Owings Mills.

But Hyatt, who had just received a diagnosis of colitis, told each of his friends to bring $10 to donate to research for the intestinal disease. In return, he gave each a T-shirt with "Turkey Trot" spelled across the chest in iron-on letters, and a tradition was born.

On that first morning, Hyatt's wife served bagels and cream cheese to the eight runners in the family kitchen, and the group raised $325. Yesterday, more than 1,000 people mobbed Hyatt's lawn and his narrow street in Owings Mills, the T-shirts featured a professional printing job and the breakfast spread filled a party tent.

And the 20th anniversary run raised more than $35,000 for medical research.

Thanksgiving races have become a tradition in many cities and towns across the country, but Turkey Trot participants said their event stands out because of its low-key origin and because it has remained so closely attached to the neighborhood where it originated.

"I've done a lot of races and triathlons, but this seems like a special one," Fells Point resident Mark Berman said minutes before the runners took off. "This one, you really feel welcomed into this family's home."

Berman was running in his first Trot because a friend, Del. Jon S. Cardin of Baltimore County, had followed Hyatt's cardinal rule and brought one new runner.

The two men joined the throng that left Hyatt's lawn at 9:15 a.m. to wind past the lush lawns and large suburban houses that line the three-mile course for walkers and 5.3-mile course for runners.

As Hyatt watched participants cross the finish line, he reminded each of the mantra that has turned the event into a Thanksgiving ritual for hundreds of Baltimore County residents: "Remember, next year, one new person," he boomed over and over through his cordless microphone.

Many said they're amazed at Hyatt's ability to spread the word about the Turkey Trot. A magazine salesman by trade, he spends the whole year promoting the Trot.

"Morton, he's a go-getter," said Oriole Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who has attended the event for the past five years, since Hyatt told him about it when they crossed paths at a nearby corner store.

Robinson, who lives in the same area of Baltimore County, chatted amiably with his neighbors as he guided his two granddaughters through the crowd.

Asked whether he was planning to run or walk, Robinson smiled and said, "If I do anything, I'll walk. I've got a new knee, so I don't run anymore."

Hyatt said he hopes that by expanding the event, he can help more and more people with colitis. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease, have no cure. About 1 million Americans live with the chronic condition.

"Sometimes, we have had trouble organizing, getting the word out about this problem," said Jackson Whitt, who works at WBAL radio and has had colitis since he was 6. "But this event is a blessing. It's turned into something really beautiful."

Hyatt said the money raised yesterday will go to research at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland.

The purpose underlying the event did not prevent people, especially members of the original group of eight runners, from teasing Hyatt mercilessly.

"We know he's just putting all this money away for his retirement," said Fred Frank, who lives a few houses away.

"Yeah, I'm adding a balcony to the boat for the next cruise," Hyatt said.

"We've been tolerating each other for 20-some years in the neighborhood," Stanley Amernick said. "It's been 20 years of infighting, but good-naturedly."

The original runners are celebrities in the Turkey Trot crowd. "You're like a hero in the neighborhood," Frank said.

"Yeah, you can tell us by the gray hair and the fat stomachs," Harmon Miller said.

Most are in their 60s, and the men still run together Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Those who ran the 5.3-mile race yesterday - Hyatt stayed behind - finished solidly in the middle of the pack.

They have one other tradition: an informal pool on when Hyatt will break down and cry.

Hyatt has never kept a dry eye more than a few minutes into the event. "I get very emotional," he said. "You can see, this has become something just remarkable."

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