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This week in Columbia history: Thousands celebrated Rouse's life at Merriweather

Columbia Flier
This week in Columbia: Over 2,500 people celebrate Rouse's life at Merriweather #columbia50

On April 12, 1996, Columbia hosted a public memorial to celebrate the life of its founder and visionary, James Rouse. The service drew about 2,500 people to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Jean Moon, a longtime Columbia resident and former Patuxent Publishing executive, and Padraic Kennedy, president of the Columbia Association for nearly 27 years and Rouse's next-door neighbor, both attended the event. Looking back, both Moon and Kennedy said the Merriweather service was "celebratory."

"I mean, we were all sad that he was gone," Moon said. "But it was to celebrate him."

James Rouse died on April 9, 1996 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in his home on Wilde Lake at age 81. There were two memorial services, one in a Baltimore church and one in Columbia.

Though more than 1,100 people attended the Baltimore funeral, the Baltimore Sun dubbed it a "family affair"; the larger Columbia service, in contrast, was "the public's tribute."

"It was just so many people," Moon recalled. "I ran into all sorts of people that I hadn't literally seen in decades, that came back for it."

Also at the event were many of Rouse's children and grandchildren, including his grandson, actor Edward Norton, as well as prominent political leaders, Kennedy said.

President Bill Clinton's Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, spoke at the Columbia service, calling Rouse "one of the greatest Americans in our time."

Politicians including former governor William Donald Schaefer and Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke read from Scripture, while U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski read from one of Rouse's speeches, the Columbia Flier reported.

Sen. Mikulski joked at the service that Rouse himself had scripted the politicians' parts, allowing only his friends and family to speak their own words, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Kennedy said that the politicians' words were indeed scripted to avoid making the service political.

Others who spoke, Kennedy said, were representatives of communities whose lives Rouse had touched. Norman Yancey, for instance, spoke about Rouse's efforts in his later years to revitalize his Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, making "each of us feel like the most important person in the world."

In his remarks at the service, Kennedy said he spoke for Columbia.

"He was probably the only developer in the country who anytime could walk into a room crowded with residents and invariably get a standing ovation," Kennedy said at the Merriweather service. "He loved the people of Columbia and they loved him."

"It was part of the fabric of his being, being in Columbia," said Rouse's son, James Rouse Jr., now 71. The younger Rouse described a childhood in which the idea of Columbia was "part of our family conversation around the dinner table for years."

"I still run into people today who live in Columbia," the younger Rouse said. "When they find out who I am, they say how grateful they are."

One former Rouse Company executive, Edwin "Ned" Daniels, who died in 2002, wanted the attendees of the Merriweather memorial to leave with something of Rouse's, Kennedy said. So, he said, they got "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of pine tree shoots, handing them to people as they left, to grow as a "living memory of Jim."

In his speech at Merriweather, Kennedy attempted to explain why Columbia's citizens had so admired Rouse.

"He was a creator of community, a champion of the poor, an uncommon man," said Kennedy in his speech. "But, I think what makes Columbians most proud is that Jim chose to live here, to work here, to be one of us. He was our neighbor and our friend. He was Jim, and we thank him for it."

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