Professors offer lesson on meaning of `long commute'

UM instructors travel from as far as Florida

December 13, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - As an urban planning professor at the University of Maryland, Reid Ewing spends a lot of time thinking of ways to shorten people's commutes. He even wrote a report titled "Measuring Sprawl And Its Impact."

Yet Ewing lives in Lighthouse Point, Fla. - which means he has to fly nearly 2,000 miles a week to go to his job at College Park. Not exactly walking to work, he acknowledges.

"Yes, I have the worst commute in the world," said Ewing, who admits to being intimately familiar with the traffic patterns around Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "The irony is not lost on me."

Ewing is one of a handful of professors at College Park who truly go the extra mile to get there. Most like working at the University of Maryland and don't mind making the weekly trek so they can live in their preferred communities.

Claudia DeMonte, a professor in the art department, lives in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood and has taught at UM for 32 years. For most of that time, she commuted between New York and Maryland by train. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, DeMonte said, trains ran so slowly and unpredictably that she started making the 220-mile trip by car.

"The train was good because I could do work," she said, but she couldn't stand the delays.

DeMonte, 57, generally leaves her home about 6 a.m. Wednesday and arrives by late morning at the university, where she meets with students and teaches an evening course. Instead of checking into a hotel, DeMonte spends the night with a friend who lives in Washington, an arrangement she has kept for 14 years.

"I'm tremendously grateful, but it can be confusing in the night, when I'm stumbling into walls, looking for the bathroom," she said.

DeMonte returns to campus to teach a Thursday morning course, generally stays for a few meetings and returns to SoHo that night. The well-known sculptor said she couldn't live in Maryland: "New York is the center of the art world. It would be too much to give up."

She considered teaching closer to Manhattan but says she couldn't find the right fit. "I didn't want a 50-hour work week," she said. "Maryland was the perfect situation."

Many of DeMonte's students say they take her class because she is a successful artist. "I don't necessarily want to starve, so I wanted a course with someone who works," said Kristie Pope, a senior.

DeMonte's commute also serves as a kind of inspiration to her students.

CeYvonne Jackson said she's not an early riser but makes a point of getting to DeMonte's 9 a.m. lecture early. "If she drives a couple of hours, at least I can come to her class and pay attention," Jackson said.

DeMonte's colleagues are sympathetic. "You couldn't have all of your faculty doing that commute," said John Ruppert, chairman of the art department. "It would be too much."

After this semester, DeMonte will retire to spend more time on her own work. "I'll miss teaching - not the commute," she said.

Lois Vietri travels from her home in Cape May, N.J., to College Park every Monday to teach politics, returning on Thursday. She said it's about a three-hour drive each way.

Vietri, 56, used to live in Arlington, Va., and said she would often spend two hours a day in her car. Now she stays at a College Park bed-and-breakfast during the week.

"I probably spend the same or even less time in the car now than I used to," she said.

Ewing calculates that he loses only about four hours a week traveling because he works on the plane.

Air fares run as low as $130 round trip during the fall, he says, and when prices rise, he cashes in his frequent-flyer miles. He has racked up enough recently to get seven free tickets and still have almost a quarter-million miles left over.

Ewing, 57, says he wouldn't mind living closer to work. But he didn't want to uproot his family, nor was he willing to leave College Park. "This is the best compromise I had," he said.

Still, he says that years of commuting from Florida have taken their toll. Ewing commuted from Florida to a job at Rutgers University before taking a position at College Park almost two years ago.

"They told me I'd have a shorter commute if I came to Maryland, which is true," he sighed.

And although Ewing said he has no plans to leave Maryland, he added that commuting "doesn't seem cool anymore. It's really a lot of work."

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