This week, the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, which has been fighting for quality of life in Towson's residential neighborhoods for nearly four decades, is honoring its "senior senators."
That's the nickname GTCCA vice president and former president Mike Ertel has bestowed on long-term members Dick Parsons, 87, and Don Gerding, 82.
Parsons and Gerding are the first recipients on March 20 of the GTCCA Appreciation Award, which has been established "to recognize outstanding service to the Towson community," according to GTCCA president Paul Hartman. In fact, he explained, the award was established last month by "overwhelming, unanimous" vote as a way of honoring the two men for their service to the all-volunteer umbrella organization that represents 30 Towson neighborhoods. He's not sure when or if there will be future recipients.
Describing them as "the bedrock" of the council, Hartman said, "We wanted to recognize their consistent huge dedication."
Members — and presidents — have come and gone," he said, "But Dick and Don persevered."
"These guys are the institutional knowledge," Ertel said. "They have been where we are going. If a question arises, they can answer it, and most of the time they are right, even if the answer sounds a little crazy. Sometimes they'd tell you stuff you'd never believe, but it would be true."
Dick Parsons was the third of more than 20 GTCCA presidents, serving from 1977-79. An administrator for the Baltimore County Public Library before he retired in 1991 and remained on as a library volunteer, he has lived in the same house in West Towson since the early 1960s, has been married for 58 years to Jane and has one son. Plans to construct Towsontown Boulevard more than 50 years ago first drew him into community volunteering.
Don Gerding, the fourth GTCCA president, serving from 1979-81, spent most of his career in the family printing business before he retired in 2002. He has been married for 58 years to Taffy, has three sons, eight grandchildren and two great-grand children and has lived in the same house in Rodgers Forge since 1957. His first community volunteer project was at about 10 years old, when he organized a baseball team for Stoneleigh where he grew up.
Both said they headed GTCCA because they wanted to serve.
"There didn't seem to be a lot of will in local organizations to fight the good fight, to stand up and wave the banner," Parsons said. "Somebody had to do the dirty work."
"We just wanted to get things done," Gerding said.
The dirty work lasted nearly 40 years for both of them until each was sidelined by health issues last year.
But the years of time and effort they invested made it possible for GTCCA to effectively deal with the myriad of complex issues that impact Towson's residential neighborhoods ranging from commercial sprawl, residential development, zoning and traffic to legislation, school redistricting, parking, property values and the expansion of Towson University and local hospitals, according to Hartman.
"People have learned a lot from them," Ertel said. "There have been plenty of disagreements and sometimes feelings would run high," Ertel said, "but they always remained gentlemen."
When it comes to negotiations, Gerding said, "The secret is don't get upset. Go in with a smile. It changes the atmosphere. And you can't just say what you don't want, you have to come in with an alternative."
Parsons and Gerding have been strong voices in all the meetings, Hartman said. For years they attended public hearing after public hearing, and arranged their schedules so they could visit county offices during the day.
"Most of their research was done before everything as online," Hartman said. "Everything was on paper. They did the legwork. We appreciate all the effort they went through."
Both have been "very likable, very caring, very interested and eager to help." according to Ed Kilcullen, president from 2007 to 2010. "Don followed every single issue and did a detailed report," Kilcullen said. "He was very methodical and thorough. He knew the system and the players. He was in the code enforcement office so frequently, they finally gave him a desk."
"Dick has an incredible" memory," Kilcullen said. "He can recall issues in the past as if it were yesterday. He understood how code enforcement, zoning and other processes worked and he knew many of the players. He'd tutor people new to the organization so they could get up to speed quickly."
Local state and county elected officials have joined the bandwagon praising Parsons and Gerding: Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, County Councilman David Marks, Sen. Jim Brochin and Dels. Susan Aumann, Bill Frank and Steve Lafferty are issuing citations in their honor.
"He would testify before the County Council in a passionate but not harsh way. He always challenged decision makers to come up with answers," said Lafferty, president of GTCCA from 1989-91. "Dick's counsel was always helpful because he talked with a lot of people."
"Don was everpresent, regardless of the issue impacting Rodgers Forge and Towson. As a businessman he interacted with the business community and could voice their concerns. He was low-key and had a good sense of humor," Lafferty said.
GTCCA has archives, thanks to Parsons and Gerding, Hartman said. They filled file cabinets and worked out an arrangement with the Towson Chamber of Commerce to store them there.
The recognition from GTCCA is "very nice," said Gerding. "I sincerely appreciate that folks understand what we tried to do.
Gerding continued, "But the most critical factor in community work is that your family lets you spend the time and energy away from them to get involved. Both Dick and I were fortunate that way. Without that family back-up, people come and then they are gone. Now it's time to bow out and let the younger folks do the driving."
Said Parsons about the award: "It's very decent of them to honor us. I appreciate that. Most of the friends I had made I have met through community work. ... I'm glad I spent my life the way I did. I've had a good time."
Parsons' advice to future GTCCA presidents and members: "Stay the course, fight the good fight and be alert for what will happen next."