Brief job at banking house 40 years ago brings to light a long-buried secret

July 19, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

The recent merger of two Baltimore financial institutions, Brown Advisory and Brown Investment Management, brought up memories of a period 40 years ago when I enjoyed a brief career with the old Alex. Brown & Sons.

A letter appeared on a Loyola High School bulletin board in January 1968 about a part-time job available at this conservative investment banking house. I was a 17-year-old senior and ready for a little change.

I appeared at the side door of Calvert and Baltimore streets one afternoon to apply for the $1.45-an-hour clerk's job. A day or two later, I was working a couple of hours a day after school for Stanley Kraska and his staff. My mother was impressed that I had to be insured and bonded. My bosses told me the one rule was to keep your mouth shut. The names of Baltimore's wealthiest people were to be forgotten. I did as I was told.

I really didn't know what I was doing, but it seemed a big deal for a 17-year-old to be working on Baltimore Street in the heart of Baltimore's financial district. Some days, I'd be given extra hours and stayed late. This called for a dinner at the old Horn & Horn restaurant, where I'd often spot Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III and some members of the City Council.

Downtown Baltimore was holding on in much the same way it does today. Many people still rode the bus to work and never gave a thought to driving and parking. Some who did drive leased parking spaces on the old Pratt Street piers that were later reworked in the Inner Harbor. I'd occasionally get a ride home. The harbor area was cold and smelled bad. It was also populated by many inebriated men - Baltimoreans called them smokeys or smokehounds. Later in the year, after school let out and I graduated, the big Alex. Brown bosses moved my division to sleepy downtown Towson near the Baltimore County Courthouse. I took the bus the other way, northward, and gained a few added responsibilities when the regular staff members went on their vacations.

One day, a fellow clerk handed me a huge pile of checks from customers who were buying securities. As I recall, the bus fare jumped that summer to 30 cents; these checks were on the order of $30,000 each.

They were also largely handwritten in fountain-pen ink. It was August and hay-fever season, and I started sneezing. I was in this uncontrollable state when I decided that office decorum required that I retreat to the men's room to try to quiet my nose.

This proved ill-advised. In the midst of my sneezing, several of the financial documents got away from me, flew up in the air and landed on a wet wash basin. I thought to myself, "Now try to explain your way out of this one."

The checks were safe, but the ink smudged and ran. I spent the next hour with hand towels trying to nurse the signatures back to legibility.

Sworn to secrecy, I acted as if nothing happened. What could I say? Ink does run. The checks cleared, and I went off to college.


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