How do you celebrate the 100th birthday of a man who never relished a lot of fuss, and who preferred to save his cake-cutting skills for parties that honored the city he created and loved?
That's the question a cast of Columbia pioneers, business associates, artists and county politicians has been working to answer as they prepare to take part in a months-long series of events paying tribute to Columbia founder James W. Rouse, who would have marked his 100th birthday April 26.
Rouse, the developer who dedicated his life to urban planning and affordable housing, died at age 81 on April 9, 1996, at his Town Center home overlooking Wilde Lake.
Despite his national fame as a master planner — his grinning, bespectacled face graced the cover of Time magazine in 1981 with the headline "Cities are Fun" — he led an unpretentious life.
A series of eight free events and exhibits that highlight Rouse's positive outlook and simple ideals, orchestrated by the Columbia Association through the Columbia Archives, was deemed the best way to honor the life and legacy of a man whose influence is still deeply felt in the planned community of nearly 100,000 and throughout Howard County.
The schedule has kicked off and will extend through September. The events include birthday parties for Rouse and for Columbia, a multimedia tribute at Merriweather Post Pavilion, visual arts exhibits, a tree planting, and walking and biking tours.
"Jim's belief that 'what ought to be can be' is the legacy we're putting forth," said Barbara Kellner, archives director and tribute organizer. "That's why people wanted to work for him and why so much got done.
"Our whole hope is that these events will be as important to those who didn't know him as it will be to those who did."
An art show titled "Visions of Hope" opened April 10 and will run through April 27 at the Columbia Art Center in the Long Reach Village Center. Works by 35 artists are on display, with two walls dedicated to photos of Rouse.
On April 25, National Arbor Day, a Cherokee Brave dogwood tree will be planted in Rouse's honor at 5 p.m. in Wilde Lake Park, near his former home.
The multimedia tribute from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. May 4 at Merriweather will have a party atmosphere, Kellner said. Attendees can write their hopes and dreams for Columbia's future on an 8-foot, 3-D replica of a tiered birthday cake. Tens of dozens of cupcakes will be distributed to mark the occasion.
"We want as many people as possible to attend," she said.
There will be children's activities on the pavilion lawn before the program starts, including face-painting, a moon bounce and a magician. Gates will open at 4:30 p.m.
Welcoming remarks will be delivered by representatives of Enterprise Community Partners, the affordable housing agency that Rouse and his wife, Patty, started in 1982 as the Enterprise Foundation.
Next, three people with strong ties to the early days and evolution of Columbia will speak on how they realized their dreams through their association with Rouse. They are Toby Orenstein, founder and artistic director of Toby's Dinner Theatre and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts; Jean Moon, public relations executive and former general manager of the Columbia Flier and Patuxent Publishing Co.; and Pat Kennedy, who served for 26 years as the first president of the Columbia Association.
Orenstein will direct the Young Columbians in a medley of Broadway tunes Rouse favored, culminating with "We Are the World." The group was formed for America's bicentennial and has entertained at the grand openings of every shopping center Rouse built, she said.
"I have been in Columbia since 1970 and I very much had a dream, and Jim helped me to fulfill that dream," said Orenstein, whom Rouse asked to build a theatrical arts school for his new community.
"He had a big vision and people helped him along the way, and I felt he wanted to pay that back," she said. "He's one of my true mentors."
Four county executives will offer brief remarks on the impact Columbia had on Howard County during their terms in office. They are: Ed Cochran (1974-1978), Elizabeth Bobo (1986-1990), James Robey (1998-2006) and Ken Ulman (2006-present).
"It will be entertaining and it will be informative," Kellner said. "And most of all, it will focus on Jim's optimistic spirit and beliefs."
The Wilde Lake WalkAlong tour, next on the agenda, is set for May 17 in Columbia's first village. Rouse loved to take walks on the 11/2-mile path around the man-made lake and kept a fishing rod by his back door, she said.
Kellner will lead the two-hour tour, which will begin at the dock and will focus on the history and architecture of the village where some of Columbia's first homes were built in 1968.
The tour will stop at The Birches to discuss mid-20th century modern design and at a couple of preserved structures that date to the mid-19th century, among other places, she said. There will also be discussion of the dozens of species of birds and other wildlife around Wilde Lake.
Columbia's 47th birthday party will be held June 20. Organizers are already planning a 50th birthday bash in 2017, Kellner said.
July will bring an exhibit titled "Jim Rouse at Leisure," which will be composed of photos and personal items such as Rouse's fishing rod and ice skates. In August, an exhibit titled "Brilliant Expectations" will be at The Mall in Columbia, and on Sept. 13 a Columbia BikeAbout is set for Wilde Lake Park.
"Jim's optimistic outlook was very influential on my life," said Kellner, who has managed the Columbia Archives since 1992 and lives in Wilde Lake.
"He put full faith in people and let them do their jobs, and everyone wanted to live up to his high expectations," she said. "This is what this [series of events] is all about, to remind people how Rouse's philosophy guided his vision for Columbia."
To RSVP to the James Rouse Celebration on May 4, go to ticketfly.com/event/551251. For tickets to the Wilde Lake walking tour May 17, go to walkalong.eventbrite.com or call 410-715-6781. Details about future events will be released as dates draw nearer.