FORTY-FIVE YEARS ago, after his team won the world championship in sudden death overtime, Arthur Donovan, legendary Baltimore Colt and Falstaff of American football, invested his bonus in a country club without a golf course.
But while the Valley Country Club, in the Riderwood area of Baltimore County, might not have had 18 holes and fabulous fairways, it had the grand, 19th-century hilltop manor house and 12 acres of a former dairy farm. With Artie Donovan's winnings from the December 1958 NFL championship, it soon had tennis courts, a snack bar, a clubhouse and the huge swimming pool that more than 400 members, their families and friends still enjoy each summer. Renovations to the manor house created a 3,000-square-foot ballroom for wedding receptions, and there's an adjoining wood-paneled bar festooned with artwork and memorabilia from Artie Donovan's Hall of Fame football career.
Artie and his wife, Dottie, have presided over their enterprise all these years, with help from their children - Arthur Jr., Mary, Christine, Debbie and Kelly - as they were growing up.
A bit more than a year ago, the Donovans put the place on the market. It wasn't something they wanted to do, but with the clock ticking - Artie will turn 80 in June, and Dottie is 72 - and all their children otherwise occupied in varied careers, it was something they had to explore.
Now, after entertaining bids from developers and other catering concerns, the Donovans have decided to keep Valley Country Club as the family business it always was. (Dottie Donovan's parents, the late Evelyn and Bud Schaech, were their original partners in the 1950s.)
"After many serious family discussions," the Donovans said in a late November letter to club members, "we are delighted and proud to announce that the Valley Country Club will not be sold."
Debbie Donovan, Cornell-educated hotel developer, barrel-horse racer and single mother of Art and Dottie Donovan's 18-year-old grandson, Christopher, agreed to come home and work with her mother to not only maintain the operation but also push the club's reception business to new levels.
They've booked the manor house for a reception on each Saturday of 2004, tripling the club's business of recent years.
Dottie Donovan, who still has her hands, literally, deep in the business - Friday, I found her in the kitchen mixing a batch of crab cakes for a wedding feast yesterday afternoon - believes rumors that VCC would be sold discouraged brides from booking it for their receptions six months to a year in advance.
"I told my mother and father that I want to rock 'n' roll," says Debbie Donovan. "We had to either sell the place or not sell the place and go for it. We couldn't be always answering the question, `Are you going to sell?'"
The land and location of VCC, south of Seminary Avenue and north of Charles Street and the Beltway, were attractive to developers, according to the Donovans' attorney, Herbert Garten. The club could have been sold, and the manor house and pool demolished, to create space for an "in-fill" housing development - smart growth in an older suburb, perhaps, but certainly a loss of a handsome, historic and unique reception facility, not to mention a club that some families have used for a couple of generations.
"My parents were going to sell; they were pretty close," says Debbie Donovan.
But Artie can be a sentimental fella, and he didn't want the club going to just anybody with money. He wanted someone to care about what he, Dottie and his in-laws had established back in the day. He wanted someone who would appreciate the old place and give it a boost. Looks like he found her.
Get well soon
Artie Donovan fell at his house a couple of weeks ago and broke his hip, God bless him. The 79-year-old NFL Hall of Famer had surgery a week ago at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, where he remains for physical therapy. Friday, Jack Gregory, a friend from New Jersey, set up a tailgate cooking station on a hospital parking lot so Artie, and many of those tending to him at GBMC, could have freshly grilled hot dogs for lunch. Mr. Donovan is beloved.