Jay Patel may never have been named a “Neighborhood Hero” if not for Oella's outhouses.
Patel, 68, was born in India where, he said, there were many outhouses. He went on to work as a helicopter engineer in Uganda, then in Singapore — both countries, he said, had outhouses.
After settling in the U.S., Patel took a wrong turn in 1982, his 9-month-old son in his arms, and found himself in Oella, a former Baltimore County mill town between Catonsville and Ellicott City where some properties did not have indoor plumbing until 1984. He saw the outhouses, he said, and it felt familiar.
“I knew I can blend with these people,” Patel said.
Patel bought the Oella Country Corner Store in 1983. The shop, which sells packaged goods and sandwiches, acts as a central gathering place for the community — a living room of sorts, with a rocking chair, a television and memorabilia lining the walls.
Patel's work in the Oella community has made him its “unofficial mayor,” longtime customer Mike Nonn said. To honor that role, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz presented Patel with a “Neighborhood Heroes” award last month.
“He gets the award, I do all the work,” Nonn teased, before saying more seriously: “He keeps the community together.”
County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said this year was the first for the award, which was Kamenetz’s idea. The county executive, who is leaving office after his term ends, is a Democratic candidate for governor.
“He wanted to recognize stalwart community leaders and people in neighborhoods who quietly make positive improvements every day,” Kobler said.
The program for the “Neighborhood Heroes” ceremony, which honored seven people from across Baltimore County, listed some of the many activities Patel volunteers for in the community.
The business owner has been president of the Greater Oella Community Association for more than 20 years. He has organized events, served on boards and created gardens, the program said.
Patel said he has led the creation of Oella’s float in the Catonsville Fourth of July parade every year but one for 19 years.
Outside of formal volunteer work, however, residents said Patel’s store is Oella’s central gathering place.
“I come in here every day,” Nonn said. “I stop in, get the news. It’s the hub of the community.”
John William McKenzie, or “Mr. Bill,” as he said some locals call him, said he has lived all 69 years of his life in Oella, and has been shopping at the 105-year-old country store almost as long. McKenzie said none of the previous owners worked to improve the community the way Patel has.
“He’s like our overseer,” McKenzie said. “He gets on the [Baltimore County government] about different things that need to be corrected. You can never get them to do anything, but Jay keeps pestering them.”
Patel said neighbors call him for help with anything — from broken arms, to picking up children from school, to finding contractors to fix elderly residents’ homes.
Once, Nonn said he came home to a house fire, and realized that Patel was already there. He had found out through Facebook and rushed over, ready to help.
A photo of Patel and McKenzie from 2011 hangs above Patel's checkout counter with dozens of others — photos of families, children and grandchildren. A note from a child hangs on the wall, wishing Patel another 30 years in his shop.
Since arriving, Patel said he has seen progress in Oella, which he said was rural and full of “hillbillies and hippies.”
The store owner said he helped clean up the area, working with police and Citizens on Patrol.
As the town began developing, installing indoor plumbing and luxury apartments, Patel took up the task of preserving Oella’s history.
For three years, starting in 2004, he said, locals would drop off old pictures at the store. After researching the town’s history at the Pratt Free Library, Patel worked with the community association to publish a book, “A Pictorial History of Oella, Maryland.”
For now, there are still old-timers who remember Oella the way it used to be. McKenzie and Patel reminisced together about Howard Cooper, who sat in the shop every day until he died this year at age 96.
Nonn recalled the year 1992, when Patel was shot three times in the head by a man trying to rob the store. As Nonn tells it, the business owner not only survived, but managed to call his wife, ran outside to catch the robber’s license plate number and call the police. Three men were convicted in connection with the attack.
Two years later, Patel said, he was summoned to the Towson courthouse, unable to pay $45,000 in medical bills.
“We had the whole neighborhood in the courtroom,” Patel said. Oella residents raised the money for his medical bills, he said, and the judge dropped the case.
Patel said he was determined to pay the community back, so he helped Oella apply for state funding to renovate the Westchester Community Center. The town won more than $150,000 in grants — more than enough, Patel said, to give back to his community.
Asked why he keeps so busy with community projects, Patel looked perplexed.
“I love it,” Patel said. “Somebody has to do it. And it has to come from your heart."