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Baltimore City

With Paul McCartney headed back to Baltimore, one Beatles fan remembers when ‘lightning’ struck during the band’s 1964 visit

Mary Meyer was sitting in her shorthand class at Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore one Monday morning nearly 58 years ago when something happened that she still calls one of the biggest thrills of her life.

As her elderly teacher read a passage aloud for the 40 students to write down, Mary, then 17, saw the classroom door swing open and the school principal, Sister Michelle Carroll, enter with a slender young man. It was startling enough that any male she didn’t know would be walking the halls of a strict, girls Catholic school in 1964. But this one also sported long hair, a tightly tailored black suit with a narrow tie, pointed black boots and dark sunglasses.

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Mary’s eyes went wide.

“Oh, my goodness, is that George Harrison?” she whispered to a classmate, who responded that it must be someone imitating the Beatles’ lead guitarist.

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Then the guest lowered those sunglasses, removing all doubt.

“I almost fainted,” recalled Meyer, now Mary Meyer Berends, 75, of Bel Air. “If we weren’t all so well trained to behave, there would probably have been a riot. All these years later, it’s still one of the ‘lightning’ moments of my life.”

What in the world was Harrison, one of the four members of the most legendary rock band of all time, doing at school on East Northern Parkway one morning at the height of Beatlemania?

With one of the late star’s bandmates, Paul McCartney, set to appear Sunday at Camden Yards, followed by drummer Ringo Starr next week at The Lyric, it seemed a fitting time to ask.

The explanations vary, but some facts are part of history. Having played five concerts during a brief first tour of the United States in February 1964, the Beatles were in the latter stages of a second, 25-stop swing through North America. They arrived in Baltimore in mid-September.

News accounts say they checked into the Holiday Inn downtown and performed 12 songs each at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. shows at the Baltimore Civic Center (now the Baltimore Arena), drawing about 26,000 pushing, screaming and fainting fans. Ticket prices reached $3.75. The Fab Four then appeared at an all-night party, either at the hotel on Lombard Street or a Holiday Inn in Towson, where some say they sought refuge from the growing throngs downtown.

Accounts long woven into Mercy lore say an architect who lived near the school, Arthur Wildberger, struck up a conversation with Harrison at the bash, and the 21-year-old expressed an interest in building design. Wildberger invited him to swing by Mercy, then just four years old and gaining notice for its modern, spacious layout.

In “First and Forever,” a 2006 history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Carroll is quoted telling local author and historian Rafael Alvarez that she received “a call from a manager or agent, a very professional call,” early on Sept. 14, 1964. One of the Beatles, she was told, was interested in visiting “a typical American school” and would, given permission, arrive soon at Mercy with an associate in tow.

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Another Beatle fan in the class of 1965, Lynne Spigelmire (now Viti), said she later learned that Carroll, who died in 2018, accepted but decided to give Harrison his tour only after classes were underway.

“She wanted to avoid a riot,” said Viti, a member of a five-girl Beatles fan club at Mercy at the time. “She was a very wise woman.”

Carroll and others — including Sister Carol Wheeler, an English teacher who would later head the school — helped reconstruct Harrison’s visit for the archdiocesan history. The principal gave the Beatle a tour that lasted about half an hour. They stuck mainly to the halls of the first floor, where the star passed numerous classrooms.

One student, Phyllis Herz, spotted Harrison through her classroom door. She asked to visit the bathroom, headed instead straight to the office, saw the so-called “quiet Beatle” chatting with Carroll and walked in.

“I don’t know how I got the nerve, but I just had to know if it was him, so I just did it,” Herz, by then Phyllis Herz Procheska, told Alvarez.

Procheska, who died last year, got Harrison’s autograph and became known as perhaps the only student who met him.

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Sister Patricia Smith was leading a French class when, unbeknown to her and most of her students, Harrison walked past her partly open classroom door. Smith remembers one girl gasping, but the rest stuck to their lesson — which, coincidentally enough, had the girls singing “She Loves You” and other Beatles hits in French that day.

“That’s exactly what we were doing at that moment,” said Smith, 83, who knew of the Beatles but was “more of a Pat Boone fan.”

“It’s a good story, and it’s a true story,” she said.

Like most people on campus, Smith and her class knew little of the Beatle’s visit until after he left. By that point, Berends recalled, the school was abuzz. Some insisted they had seen a Beatle; others scoffed in disbelief.

Carroll settled matters with an announcement over a loudspeaker: yes, George Harrison had been at Mercy, she had given him a tour, and now it was time to get back to work.

That plea fell on deaf ears — “everyone was in a stupor for the rest of the day,” Berends said — and when word got around that Harrison had been seen taking a drink from a water fountain in the lobby, girls formed a long line to do the same.

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Fifty-seven years later, Towson attorney Frank Lidinsky, a friend of the school and a lifelong Beatles fan, commissioned a plaque to commemorate the moment. It says Harrison’s drop-in was “the only known visit by a member of the group to an American high school during the height of Beatlemania.” Lidinsky verified that distinction in an email exchange with widely cited Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. The plaque, placed above the fountain, was dedicated in a ceremony in September.

Like any fantastic tale, the story of Harrison’s visit has assumed a range of forms over the years. Daniel Wildberger, the son of the architect who connected with Harrison, said his family heard a different account.

Wildberger, 58, said his car-loving father had a new Corvair convertible and enticed Harrison to take a ride. He said his father brought Harrison to Leith Walk Elementary, where Daniel’s two older siblings were students, as well as the nearby Mercy.

He doesn’t know if Wildberger had a role in Mercy’s design. But either way, he’s skeptical that architecture was the key point of interest.

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“That makes a wholesome story, and I’m fine with it. But let’s face it, that was a high school full of teenage girls who loved the Beatles,” he said, and laughed.

As for Berends, she had attended the Beatles concert the night before — she could barely hear the music above the crowd’s screams as they played “Twist and Shout,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Roll Over Beethoven” through the crude amplifiers of the day — and she recalled that as she rode the bus home, she burst into tears at the thought she would never see a Beatle again.

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The next morning, there was Harrison, a mere three rows and 4 feet from her, gazing around her shorthand classroom for a few moments.

A single line in a surviving copy of “Chronicles of Mercy,” a daily log of events the school kept in its early years, is all we know of Harrison’s reaction to his visit.

It reads: “He thought Mercy High was a very nice school.”

Berends won’t be at the McCartney concert — with the cheapest tickets reselling at $205 Thursday, it’s too expensive, and besides, she said she’s “way too old” — but she’ll never forget being almost close enough to reach out and touch Harrison.

“The best things in my life have been marrying a wonderful man and having wonderful children, and after that, it has to be seeing George,” she said. “He didn’t stay long, but he never left my heart.”


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