Gnome traipses

co-workers snap photos, snicker

October 27, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,SUN REPORTER

For years, Leonardo stood under a bush in Mary Kay Pogar's front yard, red cap at a jaunty angle, thick book tucked under an arm.

Then, on a summer day in 2005, the gnome disappeared. After a stop at Pogar's lab at a Towson hospital, he jetted around on Air Force One, went ice fishing in Antarctica and trotted along the Great Wall of China -- at least, if all the photos posted in the lab lounge were to be believed.

For Pogar, a pathologist's assistant at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, the images were a tip-off that a co-worker filched her gnome. Until then, she said, "I thought the neighbor had run over him with the lawnmower or something."

Yesterday, escorted by a GBMC security officer, Leonardo returned. Pogar's co-workers at the pathology lab prepared a potluck lunch to celebrate what they call the "gnome-coming" -- the culmination of a long-running gag that has provided a welcome break from their workday routine.

For months, the lab team has been entertained by photos -- some authentic, some altered by computer trickery -- of Leonardo on the lam. He even purportedly wrote a letter setting the condition for his return: a luncheon in his honor.

The gnome's adventure began when GBMC medical technologist Rita Howard, a confessed practical joker, spotted him from the driveway of Pogar's Towson home. She thought of the stories she'd heard of kidnapped gnomes who appeared to send back pictures from their travels. She snatched him.

A few months later, she crept back at night and left another gnome, a cheeky one with his pants around his knees, in Leonardo's place.

A few months later, Pogar received an envelope. Inside, she found a photo of Leonardo in the lab men's room. That's when the fun began.

Pogar posted the picture on the bulletin board in the pathology department's lounge. Then she tacked up a missing gnome notice with a description of Leonardo and an age-progressed photo.

Howard said she whisked the gnome off to Vermont at one point. But most of his travels were digitally enhanced.

Fuzzy images of Leonardo began to appear on the bulletin board. One day, he might appear to be riding with the Queen Mum. Another, it looked like he was riding the waves in Maui.

Meanwhile, Pogar's other gnomes -- Diogenes, Pretty Boy Floyd, Gus and Jerry -- set out on a search party. Photos show them peering into a garbage bin and, fearing the worst, standing by the hospital morgue.

"Everyday, we would run down to the board to see what was up," said Chaunte Edwards, a medical secretary for the department. Considering that most of the 170 employees of the pathology lab spend their days peering into microscopes or testing tissue samples, the shenanigans were a pleasant diversion.

"The kind of work we do is critical and exacting, so we have to have levity," employee Diane Moniuszko said. Hidden behind gray double doors, the halls of the lab are plain and unadorned. Many lab workers say that their days can be lonely since they have no direct patient contact.

"We're kind of isolated in our own little rooms, in our own little areas," Howard said.

But that doesn't mean that they don't know how to have a good time. Just mention National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week in April, for example, and no one can hold back the laughs. There was the time they raced down the hallway on office chairs, until the folks from the operating room complained. Or the time they dressed up in cat's-eye glasses and feather boas and played medical equipment bingo.

"My children think we are completely out of our minds," said Karen McCall, an immunochemist.

Janis Smith, the administrative director of the department, was quick to put a professional face on the hilarity. "It's been a fun team-building exercise," said Smith, who wore a tidy blue suit and a red felt gnome hat to the potluck.

Many of the employees wore conical hats as they laughed over a wall of photos showing Leonardo cavorting in the lab -- looking into a microscope, locking lips with the ladies and even receiving a blood transfusion -- while Pogar was on vacation. Some paged through a photo album showing Leonardo lounging in medical technician Jake Sadlowski's swimming pool. In one photo, he is ringed by empty beer cans and wearing sunglasses.

As lunch began, security officer Barbara Stiller marched in with Leonardo and an incident report. "He parachuted in; he was hanging in the oak tree on F-lot," she said.

She released the gnome to Pogar's custody.

Garden gnomes are often carried away by wanderlust, said Deborah Italiano, vice president of marketing for Travelocity.com, a travel Web site that uses a gnome as its mascot. The custom of spiriting away gnomes and posing them for pictures appears to have begun about 20 years ago in Australia. Since then, it's spread across the globe, and was featured in the movie Amelie.

Travelocity has sold more than 20,000 gnome dolls, Italiano said.

As for Leonardo, he's going to rest, at least for now, Pogar said.

Following his adventures have brightened her days, she said, usually spent analyzing surgically removed specimens.

"Not every work place would put up with this," she said. "Or think it was funny."

"Well," said Sadlowski, "anything for a luncheon around here."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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