Columbia goes down in history

Retired teacher, his former student team up to write book

May 11, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

When Joe Mitchell came to Ellicott City from Pennsylvania in 1961, he moved into a rural, conservative and sparsely populated county. The schools were segregated. There were no apartments, so Mitchell lived as a boarder in a private home, paying $90 a month for a room and two meals a day.

But everything changed when Columbia was created. Howard County became more progressive, more populated and more sophisticated. It was not what Mitchell had bargained for, but he liked it.

Mitchell, a former history teacher, has written a book about the history of Columbia with one of his former students, David Stebenne, now a 46-year-old associate professor of history at the Ohio State University.

The book, New City Upon A Hill, was published by the History Press, a company that specializes in books about local and regional history.

The book is intended to be a scholarly work, though it is written to appeal to a popular audience, said Mitchell, 66. It has 584 footnotes and includes analytical chapters with assessments on Columbia at age 40, and thoughts on what the future holds.

"There were a lot of changes that Columbia brought to the county," said Mitchell, who grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He believes that Columbia founder James W. Rouse's idealism helped spur the integration of Howard County schools in 1965.

"I'm glad the liberalism came," said Mitchell. Though he doesn't live in Columbia, the Howard County resident described it as a "very special place."

The book's title is a play on a phrase used by Puritan leader John Winthrop to describe the Massachusetts Bay colony. Mitchell says Columbia, like Winthrop's new world, was created as an ideal, a "society that would be pleasing to both God and man," as the book's introduction explains.

Mitchell started his teaching career at Howard High School, where he met and fell in love with an English teacher there, Helen Buss. The two married in 1964. "We met and courted and got engaged in front of 1,200 students, which was interesting," Mitchell said.

Helen stayed at Howard High until 1966 and now teaches at Howard Community College. Joe stayed at Howard until 1968, then taught at Loyola High School in Towson for six years, before coming back to Howard County schools and teaching history at Oakland Mills and then Centennial. He retired in 1994 and now teaches part-time at Howard Community College and Johns Hopkins.

In 1975, while at Oakland Mills, Mitchell taught Stebenne, then a sophomore. Stebenne took more classes with Mitchell, and he grew to love history so much that he went to Yale and became a historian.

Stebenne said his parents moved from Rhode Island to Columbia in 1969. "They were true believers, people who came to Columbia not just because of the amenities but because they liked what it stood for," he said.

The two men stayed in touch. Every so often, they would discuss writing a book together, and eventually they decided to write about Columbia. This year being the 40th anniversary, as well as the fact that all the village centers are built, made the timing right, they agreed.

They decided that Mitchell would conduct most of the interviews and do most of the archival research, while Stebenne, author of two previous history books, would find a publisher and handle the more analytical chapters. The two edited each other's work and also enlisted their wives, said Stebenne.

Mitchell said he spent about nine months poking through the Columbia Archives, often working five days a week, as many as six hours a day. Barbara Kellner, manager of the archives, said he spent a lot of time there. "He became a regular, every day, or almost every day, visitor," she said.

They also interviewed about 70 people, including Robert Tennenbaum, the chief architect and planner of Columbia; Pat Kennedy, the Columbia Association president for many years; and Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College.

Stebenne, meanwhile, dug through archives to find every book and article he could about Columbia. "I culled out what I thought were the best things and shared those with Joe," he said, speaking by telephone from Ohio.

He noted that writing about Columbia had its difficulties. "There is a basic challenge as a historian to be as detached as you can be," he said. "Obviously, it's a lot harder if you're writing about the history of your hometown, and you basically liked it, and I did."

Mitchell said the election of Ken Ulman as county executive marked a fitting end of the look at Columbia's history. Ulman is the first Howard County executive to have been born in the county. "It had a nice ending for a book about Columbia because he represents a new generation of politicians," said Mitchell, who lives in Ellicott City.

Mitchell is optimistic about Columbia's future and says that General Growth Properties, which purchased the Rouse Co. in 2005, will do good things, particularly regarding the development of Town Center.

The book ends on an optimistic note: "In the past, Columbia has faced challenges and managed to overcome them. It will happen again with the Town Center development."

A book-signing and reception for "New City Upon a Hill" will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at the Columbia Archives, American City Building, 10227 Wincopin Circle. It is free and open to the public. The authors also will sell the book at "A Taste of Wilde Lake" from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Wilde Lake Shopping Center.

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