Longtime resident casts loving look at Dundalk


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March 03, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

"I always think of Dundalk as an Andy Hardy kind of town," Ernest "Mac" McClure, a Dundalk actor who died this week, told The Dundalk Eagle in a 2002 interview.

That observation was echoed again yesterday by Bob Staab, a lifelong Dundalkian who served in the House of Delegates from 1978 to 1988. He was director of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks until 1991, and then a land planning consultant for several years.

Before retiring in 1999, he was director of the Harford County Department of Recreation and Parks, worked as an administrative officer to then-Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and was director of golf operations for the Baltimore County Revenue Authority.

And now the 68-year-old Robinwood Road resident has embarked on a new career, as an author.

His recently self-published 357-page book, Growing up in Dundalk: Precious Memories, is an affectionate illustrated history of the Dundalk he knew intimately growing up during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

"Dundalk is special, with special people, special places and special memories unlike any other community," he writes in the book's introduction. "The Dundalk community has also been special to me, and I wouldn't have traded it for growing up in any other place on earth."

When most people hear the word Dundalk, they think of the sprawling nearby Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant at Sparrows Point that arrived on the peninsula in 1896 and became a major employer for decades.

"My definition of Dundalk includes Sparrows Point, Edgemere and St. Helena, and it's been totally a blue-collar community as a result of Bethlehem Steel since the 1930s," Staab said.

He gets a little annoyed at the knocks the community and its residents have suffered and continue to suffer from outsiders who don't know any better.

"People looked down their nose at Dundalk, and what it did was to unite people. They became very defensive and proud, and in the end, it's made it a better community," he said.

Staab, who likes to eat breakfast at the Boulevard Diner on Merritt Boulevard, was inspired to write about Dundalk while gazing out the diner's windows and letting his mind wander back 60 years ago, to a time when truck farms and pastures mixed in with nearby heavy industry.

"As I look through the diner window, a heavily traveled highway begins to dissipate, and a different image emerges. A large mist begins to rise, and my eyes focus on a bright, shiny day with lots of trees and grass," he writes.

"A distant aroma permeates the air with the freshness of scented pines and new-mown grass. Nearly as far as I can see are open pastures with cattle, woodlands, a few farmhouses and a half-dozen homes along Trappe Road," Stabb writes of the area where his family built their 2-acre chicken farm in the mid-1940s.

Stabb tells his story through his recollections and those of other area families. There is plenty of text about and photos of the old No. 26 "Red Rocket" streetcar and local businesses -- some gone and others still flourishing.

The Stansbury Pharmacy, Poplar Inn, Strand Bakery, Dovie's Supper Club, Ambridge Bakery, John J. Duda Funeral Home, Insley's Drive-In, House of Neptune, Norris Ford and Thompson Motors -- to name a few -- will certainly get the nostalgic juices flowing for some.

He has included plenty of grammar school and high school pictures at a time when girls dressed in skirts, blouses and sweaters, and guys wore ill-fitting wing-lapel sport coats, wide neckties with zany patterns and slicked-back coifs.

The area's athletic history and the Steel Bowl Classic, the football rivalry between Dundalk and Sparrows Point high schools, have been included.

Staab combed family archives and those of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society to come up with a stunning photographic history of the area.

He also covers the community's religious life. As a communicant of St. Rita Roman Catholic Church, he has strong memories of the Rev. J.L. Weidenhan, the church's pastor, who didn't tolerate talkers or latecomers or those who left before Mass was concluded.

"As a youngster and later as a young man, I remember Father Weidenhan very well. He appeared to me as a large, powerful man who commanded an absolute presence when he entered a room," he writes.

"The areas between his fingers were stained nearly orange from the frequent smoking of Camel cigarettes. He reportedly loved to play poker and didn't mind a drink now and then. He was unique among any Catholic priest I have ever met, loved and respected by all and feared for his potential wrath by most," he writes.

Staab uncovered other facts while conducting his research.

"I checked the 1930 census, and there were 11,250 residents living in the area at the time. Outside of a couple of hundred, most residents were working at Sparrows Point, Glenn L. Martin Co. and other businesses, and this was during the Depression," Staab said.

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