Couple likes Baltimore enough to move here

January 27, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

Debra Thomas and her husband, Terry Shepard, found Baltimore in the answers they gave to one of those preferences quizzes you might get from an online dating service.

"Which is more important to you? Opera and professional theater? Or local college sports?

"Local emergency medical care? Or good restaurants and bookstores?"

And when the couple and the city finally met, it was just like one of those matchmaker commercials -- love at first sight.

"It was one of those perfect Baltimore fall days," remembers Thomas. "The trees were shining with color and the water in the Inner Harbor was dazzling and bright."

That was in October 2000. The couple, a pair of public affairs officers for Rice University and newlyweds themselves, were planning to retire to a brand-new city, defying statistics that indicate nine out of 10 boomers will choose to retire at "home."

It would be six years before they could leave Houston and settle into a darling rowhouse in Otterbein. But their hearts have been in Baltimore since that brilliant October afternoon.

"It was the perfect day, a perfect breeze," said Shepard.

"And we were charmed by everyone we met," said Thomas. "This is a city that really lives up to its reputation as Charm City."

At a time in the city's life when Sunday night means The Wire and another black mark on its soul, at a time when even an ambitious football coach might rather be the No. 2 guy in Dallas than be the top guy here, Debra Thomas and Terry Shepard are a breath of air as fresh as that fall breeze off the harbor.

They did their retirement research, considered a list of cities that fit their criteria, decided on Baltimore, and have been in love with the city ever since.

"Baltimore was made for us," said Thomas. "Everyone here is so happy and warm. But it is funny, when we tell them how we got here, they are surprised.

"Everybody loves this town, but it never occurs to them that someone else might actually choose it."

Thomas, 59, and Shepard, 57, met in 1994 through a professional association while he was working for Stanford University and she was working for Bryn Mawr College.

They married in 1998 and Thomas joined her husband in California. But they wanted a fresh start in a city that would be new to both of them, and when Rice came recruiting, the pair moved to Houston in 1998.

And almost immediately, they thought about retiring.

"We were told it takes three years to get used to Texas," remembered Thomas. "They told us, `You may never like it, but you'll be used to it.'"

"It really is a whole 'nother country," said Shepard.

The couple asked their financial adviser how soon they could retire. "And he said, `It depends on where you want to live.'"

They purchased a workbook titled Places Rated Almanac by David Savageau, and took the 72-question preference quiz --"Which is more important, nearby national parks or number of stormy days a year?" -- compared their scores to charts in the book on such topics as ambience, housing, transportation, crime, jobs, climate, health care, recreation and education -- and came up with a list of a half dozen possibilities.

"We decided Boston was too tweedy, Savannah, Ga., was too Southern and too hot," said Thomas.

"I loved Philadelphia when I lived there, but we wanted a city that would be ours. Providence? Maybe. And Baltimore."

The rest, as they say, is history.

For Thomas and Shepard, Baltimore scored high in ambience -- they love the theaters, restaurants and the Inner Harbor -- and education. All the colleges and universities, plus the Enoch Pratt Library, make it a smart town.

But most important, Baltimore scored high in public transportation. The Amtrak, the MARC train, the light rail, the bus system and the Inner Harbor water taxi mean they could give up both cars and still travel easily in the city and on the Eastern Seaboard.

"Politics was important, too," said Shepard. There is a poster in their window that reads, "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right."

"We wanted to live not just where the people we voted for would get elected," said Thomas. "But where the politics matched ours."

After renting out their 1820s Otterbein home for a few years -- that was love at first sight, too -- they retired from Rice, sold both cars and moved to Baltimore in June 2006 .

"This city has good bones, as Debra says," said Shepard. "And it is a lively and upbeat place to live. People are happy around here. And I don't think I have ever had a moment of fear in this city."

Right now, the couple uses the light rail and the bus system to make the long commute to Annapolis two days a week to volunteer with the General Assembly.

Otherwise, the Red Flyer wagon that sits under a tarp in their postage-stamp-sized backyard is the only transportation they own. It has big tires to handle the cobblestones of Baltimore.

They use the wagon for grocery shopping at the Whole Foods on Fleet Street, shopping in Federal Hill or trips to the Pratt library.

But their own bookshelves are well stocked -- including copies of Laura Lippman's mystery novels set in Baltimore.

"We started reading those right away," said Shepard. "We wanted to know about our new hometown."

And have they been watching The Wire, too?

"No" said Shepard. "We want to like our city."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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Read recent columns by Susan Reimer at baltimoresun.com/reimer

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