Louis & Shirley Diggs:

A Historic Move

A Year In Their Lives

December 28, 2003|By Gary Dorsey

When Shirley Washington met Louis Diggs in Philadelphia in September 1953, he had lived in Korea and Japan and, within months, he was headed for Germany.

She never said directly that she expected this strong, handsome U.S. Army soldier to be her ticket out of small-town Catonsville. But she kept hoping.

"I know for the last 50 years she has always said how she wanted to leave Catonsville," Louis says. "When I met her, she was a young girl who just wanted a new experience. Unfortunately -- and I hate to say it -- but I fell in love with Catonsville as well as with Shirley."

Louis fell in love with her family, her church, her neighborhood. Having grown up poor in Baltimore with a loving mother but an absent father, Louis found comfort in Shirley's big Catonsville family. The pace of life was slower, people were kind. "All of this friendliness and warmth just drew me closer into the community," he says. "Deep down, I didn't want to leave."

They got married and lived among all the Catonsvillians.

Soon, however, Shirley announced she wanted to move -- to Columbia.

Columbia, Maryland.

"I wish we had lived at least a little distance from Catonsville," Shirley says. "I had so much family around, you just never learned to be independent."

In the early 1960s, Shirley and Louis did move to Stuttgart, Germany, for a few years -- "the best years of our lives," Louis says -- on assignment with the Army. But when the tour ended, they came back to ... yes, Catonsville, and settled in at 135 Winters Lane.

The house where Shirley grew up.

"I got so comfortable at 135 Winters Lane!" Louis says. "Shirley's father had a nice-sized home there and a great big back yard. I cleared out the back for our four boys, fixed up the house for her father and put in central heating."

They looked into buying a house in Columbia. But the arrangement with Shirley's father was too good, Louis thought. No mortgage payments. A nice home. All that family around.

Louis liked it so well, he bought an entire block of a property just around the corner from Winters Lane and built a house there. He left enough land for his four boys to build there, too, when they grew up. "That cemented my relationship with Catonsville," Louis says. "I knew then we weren't going. Shirley knew it, too."

After he retired from the military, Louis got interested in local history and genealogy. A high school dropout, he attended school again, got an associate's degree at a community college, then a bachelor's degree at the University of Baltimore, then a master's degree in public administration. In 1995, he published his first book, the first in a series of history books about the 40 African-American communities in Baltimore County. It was about Catonsville. It was called It All Started On Winters Lane.

Shirley, who was a librarian, lent her support.

With grants from Baltimore County and the Maryland Humanities Council, Louis has published six books, the latest out this year, and has become the pre-eminent historian of African-American communities in this region of the state.

Last month, though, after all that time in Catonsville, Louis and Shirley finally moved. They gave up the big house for a condo -- in Owings Mills.

A momentous occasion. A huge change for their four sons and nine grandchildren, who had come to rely on Louis and Shirley's house as home base on the weekends. A turning point into what Shirley calls "our sunset years."

They have given away much of the furniture: antiques inherited from Shirley's aunts and grandmother; dozens of German clocks that Louis collected in the Army overseas. The family's European decor is quickly being replaced.

Shirley is remodeling their new place with African art. And the grandchildren are not allowed to run and shout there.

Louis and Shirley just watch the snow as it piles up outside and smile. No shoveling. No stairs. "We just sit there and look out the window and pay that snow no mind," Louis says. "No mind at all. I thoroughly enjoy it."

As for Shirley, she's looking forward to this next stage of life in a new town -- restaurants, ocean cruises, a bit more independence -- even though it took 49 years and six months, and they moved only about 15 miles up the road.

"Yes, moving out of Catonsville is a big accomplishment," she says, "even though I do sometimes get a little homesick."

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