William Burgemeister, 83, plumbing company owner


William H. Burgemeister, co-founder of a Baltimore County plumbing company who, with his wife, established the Salem Players amateur theatrical troupe, died Saturday of complications from Parkinson's disease at his Owings Mills home. He was 83.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Overlea, Mr. Burgemeister was a 1939 graduate of Kenwood High School.

He enlisted in the Navy at the outbreak of World War II and served aboard the attack transport USS James O'Hara as an electrician's mate during the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. He later served on a minesweeper and trained for submarine duty before his discharge at war's end.

Mr. Burgemeister returned to Baltimore and worked briefly as an electrician at Crown Cork & Seal Co. while earning his master plumber's license, which he received in 1950.

He began working as a plumber, and on a Sunday afternoon in 1956, mutual friends introduced Mr. Burgemeister to Albert I. Bell, also a plumber. By the end of their meeting, the two men had agreed to go into business together, each borrowing $2,000 to establish Burgemeister-Bell Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Co. Inc. in a Pikesville trailer.

"The first thing we bought was a Ford pickup, and we were in business. A few months later, we purchased a used Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. truck," Mr. Bell recalled yesterday from his home in Naples, Fla.

In 1963, the business moved to a new 10,000-square-foot office and warehouse complex in Owings Mills. The two men later added two buildings, more than tripling their warehouse space, and an early computer system using punch cards that allowed them to keep track of inventory.

"We grew the business together. Bill was a good public relations man and was good when it came to meeting people and bidding jobs. I was a good plumber, so to speak, and good with figures, so we made an excellent team," Mr. Bell said.

A major achievement along the fledgling company's path to success was installing plumbing in homes that were being constructed in Columbia during the 1960s.

"We got tied into Ryland Homes, and they were very happy with our work. I guess we installed the majority of the plumbing in Columbia," Mr. Bell said. "In 1974, we diversified into the underground utility business and became one of the largest utility contractors in Baltimore County."

Mr. Burgemeister retired in 1986 and sold his interest in the business to Mr. Bell.

"Bill was just an outstanding human being. He was very fair, his employees liked him, and his competitors respected him," said Jeffrey B. Loveless, a partner and treasurer of the company.

"He liked his work and was good at it," said Sonny Bauerlien, who started working there in 1961.

Mr. Burgemeister, who was honored as Maryland Contractor of the Year in the 1960s, was a member and former president of the Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Association of Maryland, and a member and former president of Associated Builders and Contractors. He also had been a commissioner on the Maryland Plumbing Board.

In 1977, he and his wife, the former Patricia Ellis, whom he married in 1962, established Salem Players at Salem Lutheran Church in Catonsville, where they were members.

"The theater was my baby, and he was very supportive. He did all the set construction, and once in a while I could talk him into taking a walk-on role," said Mrs. Burgemeister, who directed the group's productions and appeared with her husband in the play Love Letters.

"He and Pat were wonderful in Love Letters. It was poignant then and more poignant now," said the Rev. G. Edward Whetston, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church, who often shared walk-on roles with Mr. Burgemeister. "They were always minor characters like detectives, sheriffs or policemen, but we had a lot of fun."

"Bill even dressed up as a strawberry for our church's strawberry festivals. He was a dear soul," said Claire L. Graham, the theater group's president and director. "He was a real jack-of-all-trades, and if Pat needed a body for a play, she volunteered him, and he was so good-natured that he'd take the part."

Mr. Burgemeister enjoyed performances at other theaters and collecting wooden statues from his worldwide travels. "We visited all 50 states and 75 countries," Mrs. Burgemeister said.

Services were held Wednesday at his church.

Also surviving are a son, William K. Burgemeister of Maui, Hawaii; a daughter, Deirdre L. Stone of Port St. Lucie, Fla.; and seven grandchildren.


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