Laurel Leader

Seems like everyone passes through Laurel, at one time or another [Commentary]

From George Washington to George Wallace to the Astrodon johnstoni dinosaurs that roamed the wilds off Contee Road — no doubt killing time before the new Panera and Harris Teeter open in Laurel — it seems that Laurel has hosted virtually every species.

I got to thinking about this when I heard the news of the recent death of James Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan. Both men were shot in 1981 by would-be assassin John Hinckley.


Over the past 30 years, my recollections of well-known people who have left their footprints in Laurel are, for the most part, clear, with a few blurry, abstract lines thrown in to signify the relentless march of time. It also looks back to a pre-social media era when reporters and editors in the newsroom at the Laurel Leader would field the occasional phone call from tipsters who were kind enough to report celebrity sightings. I am fortunate in that I got to handle more than my share of these rare to non-existent personal encounters. My cup runneth over.

When word came in late one afternoon that Brady was down at the other end of Main Street at the old Gayer's Saddlery, then Leader-editor Joe Murchison and I rushed to the scene. His legs are much longer than mine, so it was nearly impossible for me to keep up with his block-long strides. But made it we did. And there, browsing in a back aisle in his wheelchair was Brady, while his Secret Service van waited outside. He was cordial, explaining in slurred, halting speech that he enjoyed Gayer's because it stocked apparel he needed "for horseback riding in Rock Creek Park. It's part of my therapy."


A few months after, the newsroom phone rang again. Betty Baker, our irascible office manager, took it. She judged it important enough to interrupt our regular Thursday morning staff meeting. When Betty would burst into the conference room during these meet-ups, you knew it was breaking news. She told the staff that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was at Laurel Woods Elementary, speaking to a group of fifth-graders.  My colleague Stephanie Kalinich and I, swung into action. Thanks to Kalinich's impeccable training as an actress — timing and intonation are everything — we were able to talk our way into the school gym, finding seats in the back row, notebooks at the ready. Sure enough, there was the man Anita Hill and liberals would rather forget, cajoling kids to "turn the TV off and do your homework. If you can do this for a week, call me. I'll invite you down for a tour."

Later, we cornered Thomas and peppered him with questions. He wasn't what you would call warm and fuzzy. Breaking into a sweat, he had this classic, deer in the headlights gaze and was less verbal than a doe. Not likely the jurist was voted the friendliest guy in his high school class. Still, how many chances are there in life to meet a member of the highest court in the land? This was mine.

A few months later, Joe asked me to cover a Saturday assignment. Seemed the Laurel Mall had undergone a partial makeover; a soft grand reopening was on tap. I was on it. The mall manager escorted me across the sparkling new Italian marble floor to his office by the Montgomery Ward store.  Inside sat not James Brady, not Clarence Thomas, but Annette Funicello! The original member of the Mouseketeers was one of my early crushes — me and about three million other awkward pre-pubescent boys. I froze; her sun-kissed, Mediterranean skin and olive-brown eyes glowed. I melted in a puddle of perspiration.

"Nice to meet you," she chirped. "I like that your mall has a bright Italian touch!"  Meanwhile, her partner, 50's heartthrob Fabian, reclined at a desk, chain-smoking and griping about geography. "They told me this appearance would be in Washington, D.C.," he complained. "This ain't it.  So where the hell are we?"

Sadly, Funicello developed muscular sclerosis a short time later, but, true to her nature, remained active and robust. She died last year at 70.

There were others. Noted psychic Jean Dixon read my palm in front of a row of new Laurel Lakes townhouses. Her prediction: I would be "famous and wealthy by the time I was 33." Her dark, inner visions and voices must have called in drunk that day, because 33 came and went and I'm still neither. And who cares?

A few months elapsed before meeting a real astronaut, Dr. Roger Crouch. Over coffee at Denny's, the Laurel resident, who flew on two NASA missions as a payload specialist, talked more about growing up in Tennessee than he did about gravity and physics and what Tang tastes like up there. Most important, I wanted to know what arrangements have been made when nature calls and you happen to be out of this world.

A few months passed, and I found myself hightailing it over to Laurel Elementary. There was an all-school assembly promoting milk (remember the milk mustache ads?) and I was embedded on the front lines. I did a double take when I saw who the keynote speaker was: Darrell Green, the famed Washington Redskins cornerback who played with the team from 1983 until his retirement in 2002. Assuming he would be in and out after his upbeat talk, I didn't try very hard to find him. But, as fate would have it, we crossed paths out on the school playground. And for nearly an hour, we talked football, about his love of the game and how he placed his Christian values above all else.


"I'm late for an appointment in Virginia," he told me later, "but, really, man, this was great!" Then he thanked me. On the open-ended charm scale, Green was the male version of Funicello, but not quite as cute.