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August 5, 2004

My Two Years in Frederick

Joe Volz

I am the new boy in town and I guess I will continue to be considered an upstart for the next 20 years or so.

My wife, Kate, and I arrived in Frederick from Washington two years ago. We live out in Worman's Mill, right around the corner from ex-Mayor Ron Young.

Well, if it is not too presumptuous, I thought I would offer my entirely unsolicited assessment of the town. Sometimes, I think, it helps to get an outsider's view - one based mainly on impressions and certainly not on a lot of knowledge.

I like the folksy small town atmosphere of the place, having spent most of my life in large cities or their suburbs. The local officials are readily available.

Not only have I lived in Washington and grown up in New Jersey, one large congested city, but I have resided in Stuttgart, Germany; Los Angeles, Auckland, New Zealand, and briefly, in Sydney, Australia.

So, Frederick is a change of pace.

I love the friendliness of the people. The openness they show toward a newcomer. I suppose I am not surprised at the name calling that goes on among local politicians. I suppose that happens everywhere, although I find here the smallest issue can be the source of a lot of screaming and shouting - things like how many restaurant tables should be allowed on the city sidewalk, how many cabs should be allowed, what show should the Weinberg Center perform and who should decide and whether the city should pay for a fence it approved and then disapproved.

These issues seem to take an inordinate amount of time, as much as the larger issues, such as how do we increase our water supply, provide decent housing to all our residents and improve our schools.

Maybe, it's just that we have too much government.

Much of Maryland survives under one system of local government. County officials run things. Here we have a city government, complete with its own police force, and a county government. And the two sides seem constantly to be squabbling. It often has nothing to do with Democrat vs. Republican but with personalities. I notice that the big personalities seem to run for office here - Lennie Thompson, Bill Hall, Mike Cady and Jennifer Dougherty, to name a few.

They love to use the bully pulpit to point out the deficiencies of their fellow public servants, including questioning their ethics. Although they seem to genuinely dislike their fellows, the local pols, in person, seem to be pleasant enough. Just don't attack them. They are pretty thin skinned.

As far as I can tell, the school system does not match the standards of its wealthy neighbor to the South, Montgomery, and probably never will. The upper middle class just isn't large enough here to demand and pay for the highest quality of education.

It seems to me that this area is in transition from being a farming community to a bedroom community and, perhaps, someday, if more white collar jobs escape crowded Montgomery and come up here, education may improve.

But there seems to be a provincial level here, which often transcends common sense. Oh, it's not as bad as Sinclair Lewis's famed Sauk Center portrayed in his great novel, Main Street. Nor does the town merit the scorn that H.L. Mencken would no doubt heap on it if he were still alive.

But the boast that we are the number two city in the state (Turns out we are really number eight in size) is a bit provincial, don't you think? Who wants to boast that he is second best except Avis?

Why not be content to be the size we are and to do our best to preserve the best of the past and the beautiful countryside? Is that a bad goal? That is why I moved here.

Sometimes, our reverence of the worst of the past baffles me. The Historical Society operates the home of former Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who in my mind will live in infamy as author of the most dreaded ruling in U.S. judicial history, the Dred Scott decision, which continued slavery and may have been one of the causes of the Civil War. Justice Taney is no one to be proud of although Chief Justice William Rehnquist was up here not too long ago singing his praises - and people paid $100 a plate to listen to that nonsense.

If the house is to show how a misguided, yes evil, man lived among our midst, then okay. But honoring him? No.

His brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key, is more to my liking as a hero.

There were many brave souls who died down the road at Antietam on that fateful fall day so many years ago to preserve a union that was crumbling here in Frederick just as it was throughout the nation. Brother fought against brother. The union was preserved but to my mind at a terrible, terrible cost of life, which should be regarded as the ultimate failure in common sense and diplomacy. Of ego's triumph over humility.

Certainly, none of the squabbles today among our politicians matches the monumental problems President Lincoln faced.

But then again, we have no Abraham Lincoln here to deal with them.

I am afraid that the world will little note nor long remember most of the things we fight about in this town of ours. Maybe, we just take ourselves too seriously. What do you think?

E mail Joe Volz at

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