Council, camera and action

Manchester: For years, a school crossing guard has helped bring meetings to residents of the Carroll town.

December 12, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Before the mayor even bangs his gavel, Manchester Town Council meetings kick off in a way that's all their own.

"OK, Gerr?" Mayor Christopher B. D'Amario asks the camera operator.

Taking her cue, Geraldine "Gerri" Berwager zooms in on a small black sign with white letters announcing the meeting day and date. She pulls back and focuses -- sometimes a little slowly -- on the mayor.

She may have a videocassette recorder sitting unused and blinking at home, but this 77-year-old great-grandmother is somewhat handy with at least one piece of electronics: the camera used to televise the Manchester meetings.

She volunteered to add the job to her duties as a part-time town employee nearly a decade ago, after one camera operator after another had walked away from the job. She learned how to work the camera from a list of instructions scratched out in pencil on the back of an envelope.

"A lot of people kid me about putting the camera on the ceiling, on the floor," Berwager said, eyes twinkling behind her eyeglasses. "I laugh. People like to tease. It doesn't upset me."

Manchester's live broadcast, the only one of its type among Carroll County municipalities, is available to cable subscribers in town. It may not be must-see TV, but Manchester residents like to joke that they get their popcorn ready for the show.

"I do know a lot of people do watch, because they come up to me and ask a question or make a comment about something that happened at the meeting," D'Amario said. "So in the process of channel surfing, we're in the mix."

Regular viewer Clyde E. Kreitzer, who carried the town's mail for 27 years and served on the council from 1963 to 1983, sometimes changes the channel on Manchester meetings, but he said the October meeting made for particularly good viewing. There was an angry exchange about the town's hopes of getting a bypass, along with protests from apartment-building owners and a woman who complained at length about neighboring renters.

"That was good, better than some of the stuff that's on television," Kreitzer said.

Berwager said, "I think people love to see people disagree, see a little mouth battle." But she added that the October meeting brought her more criticism than usual because one speaker used a barnyard epithet.

The former Geraldine Yingling grew up on a 106-acre family farm north of town and graduated in 1943 from the old Manchester High School. She worked as a key-punch operator for 6 1/2 years at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn and as a claims adjuster for two years at Random House in Westminster. She then spent 21 years traveling and working with her husband, livestock dealer Richard Berwager.

Grieving after his death in April 1994, she was drawn to an advertisement for a job as a Manchester Elementary School crossing guard. By that autumn, she was a part-time town employee.

"You can't just grieve, sit at home," said Berwager, a mother of three, with a grandson and a great-granddaughter. "When my husband died, I saw a need to be out with people. I signed up for everything that was available, to get me out of the house."

Crossing guard is still her official title, and she says it remains her favorite job.

A daughter, Brenda Wulforst of Hampstead, said her mother made the right choice, adding, "You can take to a rocking chair, if you choose, and have no inspiration, or you can continue to live."

In addition to her paid work for the town, at $8.65 an hour, Berwager has put in a lot of unpaid hours, whether planting flowers outside the town hall, locking up the park facilities or baking cakes for birthdays and other events at the town.

Berwager became the camerawoman in 1995 when no one else would take the job, past and present town officials say. A series of high school students had come and gone in the job.

"I knew absolutely nothing about it," Berwager says of her first encounter with the camera. "You turn it on and pray it works."

Berwager also runs the camera for monthly planning and zoning meetings, and occasional town election forums. She would be the first to acknowledge that her technique isn't state of the art. But town officials say she finds ways to handle the problems.

"I get stopped in the grocery store by people who say, `Tell them to turn the microphone up,' or `Turn the sound up,' or `Tell so-and-so to speak up,'" said Mary E. Minderlein, a councilwoman until she recently stepped down because she is moving out of town. "Gerri holds up a big handmade sign up that says, `Get closer to mike.' It's just magic marker and cardboard."

People who speak from the back of the meeting room, rather than coming to the microphone, are a recurring challenge for Berwager.

But, said D'Amario, the mayor, "Eventually Gerri will swing that camera around and get them."

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