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The stories behind the 'Legendary Locals of Bel Air'

The stories behind the 'Legendary Locals of Bel Air'
Carol Deibel and co-author Kathi Sanotra will host an event to celebrate their new book Legendary Locals of Bel Air Saturday September 10 at Bel Air Town Hall. (MATT BUTTON AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Bel Air has some pretty amazing people, who have done some pretty amazing things, along with a few ne'er-do-wells. Two local writers have compiled their stories into one book, "Legendary Locals of Bel Air."

The 126-page book, by Arcadia Publishing, features old-timers and newcomers, each of whom has had some impact in the community, or has a fascinating story to tell, said Carol Deibel, one of the authors of the book.

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It's a who's who of Bel Air, past and present.

Deibel and co-author Kathi Santora will host a book-release party Saturday at Bel Air Town Hall from 1 to 3 p.m. Some of the people they wrote about will attend.

"It was fun, putting this all together, because these people are amazing," Deibel said. "The characters, those are the people that are legends."

The stories in the book have generated even more stories, many of them through social media.

Bill Brown, the track star who coached at Central Consolidated for 15 years and later at Bel Air High School, and Wendell Baxter, a Bel Air Police officer, who also volunteered with the American Red Cross, generated hundreds of comments on Facebook from people who talked about the impact those men had on their lives.

Deibel and Santora worked together on the book, Deibel said. Having worked for the county government and Town of Bel Air for more than 30 years, she has an extensive historical background and hundreds of contacts in the community.

Santora, she said, is a very good writer who took most of the photos for the book and did interviews with the "current" people.

"She made it easy to pick up on some people I might have overlooked," Deibel said. "And I could focus on people around in the old days."

The book could have been twice as long, she said, but it was limited to the number of words and pages.

The pair interviewed all the living people in the book, and family and friends of those who are deceased.

Writing the book has opened Deibel's eyes in so many ways, she said.

"It really helps you grow, knowing these people," she said. "You get a whole sense of how things have changed for people who lived through those eras."

A long-time public servant, Deibel said "Legendary Locals" would be a good book for many people working in today's government – "to get some of the insight provided by some of those people."

She pointed out how things have changed – in today's world where permits and licenses are needed to undertake any kind of project, Gen. Milton Reckord, for whom the Bel Air Armory is named, taught himself to be an electrician – and the interconnections among families – two brothers in the Archer family served on separate sides in the Civil War.

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"After the war, how did they ever talk to each other?" Deibel wondered. "There are families with crazy interconnections and it's wonderful how they managed to get through some of the things they survived."

It also emphasized the importance of historical documents and how valuable they might be.

"People don't realize the importance of saving documents," she said. "When grandma dies, bring them to us. We'll dispose of them but we'll also find some very historical documents."

Everyone has a story to tell. Some of them will be told, while others will fade away quietly. And even among those who are well-known, their entire histories may never come to light.

In the Bel Air series of "Legendary Locals," Deibel and Santora try to share the back stories of some of Bel Air's more notable – good or bad – residents.

"It's fun you have meeting people, doing the research, finding stories, it's so much fun to come across something no one else knows," Deibel said. "There are so many great stories, people worthy of being part of a book like this."

Besides the book launch Sept. 10, Deibel and Santora will be at the Bel Air Festival of the Arts from 1 to 3 p.m. Sept. 18 and the Bel Air Holiday Gift Sale from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3.

The book is also available at Barnes & Noble, the Historical Society of Harford County, Boyd and Fulford drug store, Preston's Stationery, the Hallmark store in Aberdeen and on Amazon.com.

The following are some of Deibel's more notable interviews, for one reason or another.

Ann Stifler Pearce

The 90-something-year-old former Army nurse was Deibel's favorite interview.

She spent three hours with Pearce at her home near the intersection of Moores Mill Road and Hickory Avenue – "I could have stayed there all day," Deibel said.

Mrs. Pearce died three weeks later.

"I'm so glad I had the chance to meet her," Deibel said. "She was incredible. I walked in the door and her dining room table was filled with scrapbooks, paper clippings, and she started telling me her story. She was gleaming."

Mrs. Pearce (page 84) graduated from Bel Air High when she was 15. She wanted to be a nurse, but was too young to apply to Church Home and Hospital, where students had to be 18.

In the three years in the interim, Mrs. Pearce worked at Hutzler's.

After she graduated in 1941 from Church Home, a nurse she studied with wanted to join the service, so Mrs. Pearce went with her to keep her company.

"She didn't intend to sign up. She was going to keep her company," Deibel said. "The recruiter, she said, 'was the most incredible-looking guy I'd ever seen, I gotta join.' So she did."

After being shipped off to North Africa, then Italy and France, she came home in 1945 and began working with quadriplegics and paraplegics, one of whom was an artist she was particularly close to.

He wanted to draw a picture for her and asked what she wanted. Deibel said she missed her house, so the paraplegic drew Mrs. Pearce's house from a photograph.

"She was just amazing and the people she met and the things she did ... her whole life was amazing," Deibel said.

'Miss Nick'

When Poto Panos was 15, she was put on a boat from Greece wearing a sign that said her father worked at Lexington Market. She spoke no English and had $25. She arrived in New York and wandered the streets until she was picked up by police, who eventually got her to Baltimore to find her father.

She was a candy vendor at the market, but he and his partner wanted to move to Bel Air. On a Sunday, Deibel said, they loaded everything into a wagon and set up their store, which opened the next day.

A week later, her father told her he had arranged her marriage, to his business partner, Nick Panos. They eventually had five children. When Mr. Panos died, Pota didn't know how to make candy.

"Prohibition had been lifted, she could cook and open a beer, she said, so she opened a luncheonette and served beer and worked there until 1990," Deibel said. "If someone put me on that ship, I didn't know English, I'd have jumped overboard."

Herman Stump

A lawyer in Bel Air, who owned a significant amount of property, was the most disappointing to Deibel.

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Stump was a leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret group that sought to create a confederation of slave-holding states. From Canada, where he fled to escape arrest for aiding the enemy, he wrote his mother a letter telling her how to dispose of his property so it wouldn't be taken.

"After the war, he gets elected to Congress. There, he gets a law passed restricting Asians from emigrating to the United States. Then after his term, he was appointed to the board that kept the Asians out," Deibel said.

"This man, to his day, is glorified because he owned a lot of land, but in reality, he was evil," she said. "He did some really cruel things."

Jim Butcher

The artist and photographer was the most interesting interview Deibel did.

Butcher started school at the Maryland Institute College of A,t, but quit and joined the Marines, where he was assigned to be a jet engine repairman.

His commanding officer discovered his artistic ability, Deibel said, and asked Butcher if he would consider photographing and painting for the Marines.

"So he began to document the Tet Offensive," Deibel said in awe. "You go from jet engines to photographing the Tet Offensive?"

He went on to work for National Geographic and later Newsweek before creating posters for the likes of movies starring Clint Eastwood, among others.

Gerald Kunkel

The manager of the family business, Kunkel Auto Parts, for 48 years, Kunkel dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer. A stint working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos fell between two stints at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After earning his degree, he was offered a job as an aeronautical engineer in Texas, but he was needed at the family store in Bel Air. His parents' only son, Kunkel returned home and over the years expanded the business from four to 15 stores.

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