Judge's legacy, like founder, served nobly

Year after Hammerman's death, his beloved Lancers, too, are gone

November 12, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Among the many deliberate steps retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman took before ending his life a year ago yesterday was to try to make sure his most treasured legacy would survive him.

But a year later, the Lancers Club, the legendary 59-year-old leadership club for Baltimore youth that Hammerman founded and nurtured until his death, is no more. Its final gathering took place months ago, a somber evening attended by current and former members and parents.

"Ending the Lancers was the appropriate thing to do," said 71-year-old Jerry Sachs, one of the club's founding members. "Without Bob, it didn't really have a chance - and we didn't want to see it go downhill."

The quiet finale of the Lancers Club, which left its stamp on thousands of Baltimore boys and men, stands in contrast to the public drama of Hammerman's death last Veterans Day. Early that morning, the 76-year-old retired judge walked to a wooded area near his condominium and shot himself with a gun he had purchased and learned to use for that purpose.

"I owe you an explanation," began a letter he had mailed a day before to more than 2,000 people. He had decided to end his life more than a year earlier, Hammerman wrote, primarily because of his growing concern that he had Alzheimer's disease. More than death, the elderly bachelor said he feared losing his memory and his independence.

His suicide was reported in newspapers around the country. The longest-serving judge in Maryland history, Hammerman was also well-known for his stewardship of the Lancers, a leadership and service organization that spanned seven decades. Among Lancers alumni are former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, former executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former chairman and chief executive of Alex. Brown Inc.

Anticipating his death, the judge wrote separate letters to three former Lancers - Sachs, Lewis Noonberg and Herb Better - whom he considered among his closest friends. He asked them to assume responsibility for the future of the club.

Running the organization, though, was a mission to which the late judge had devoted most of his life and much of his time and money. When his friends and followers realized they could not keep the all-volunteer program operating at the same level, they decided to close it.

"We were not going to let it die a slow death. We also decided that if we were going to end it, it would come at the end of the school year," said Noonberg, 67, an attorney at Piper Rudnick.

The final meeting was held in May at the club's regular venue at Cross Country Elementary School. About 70 people attended to hear a talk by Krongard, another of the club's founders.

The mood that evening was one of disappointed resignation, said Vitaliy Elbert, one of the club's last presidents. Now a sophomore at Princeton University, he came home to attend the last meeting.

"Judge Hammerman was the soul of the club. I think they made the right decision given the circumstances," he said. "If there wasn't someone to fill his shoes, I don't think it would be appropriate to continue the club. It was just such an overwhelming commitment."

Hammerman was a college student at the Johns Hopkins University in 1946 when three younger boys from his Ashburton neighborhood, including Krongard and Sachs, now an assistant to the director of the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum, asked whether he would act as adviser to a club they wanted to start. Until the day before he died almost 60 years later, Hammerman was still advising high school students on how to reach their goals and better serve their community.

"Of all the things he preached, No. 1 was public service," said Better, an attorney with Zuckerman Spaeder who joined the club in 1956. "He used to call it his way of paying rent for his days on earth. One of his favorite expressions was: `You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something.'"

Whenever Hammerman wasn't pondering legal matters, his friends said, he was preoccupied with the care and feeding of the Lancers - a kind of surrogate family for the lifelong bachelor.

The club went through many stages, adapting to the ebb and flow of its membership and reflecting the interests of a changing youth culture. It was exclusively for high school boys until 2000, when it first admitted girls. By the 1980s and '90s, the club faced increasing competition from other programs offering extracurricular sports, cultural and service activities.

But no rival group could promise the lineup of distinguished speakers Hammerman managed to attract, including Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor, Gen. Colin L. Powell, historians Stephen Ambrose and Taylor Branch, Orioles legend Brooks Robinson and NBA star Julius Erving.

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