Last year, my father caught sight of another driver and exclaimed, "That can't be Carroll Williams!"
The man behind the wheel was indeed the indomitable landlord of dozens of Charles Village apartments. It seemed as though he would live forever, but Mr. Williams died Aug. 3. He had just turned 95.
The strong-willed Carroll E. Williams was one of Baltimore's characters. Depending on how you came to know him, he was either a reporter with apartments to rent, or a landlord with stories to write. He did both in staggering volume.
His was a name I'd heard all my life. Many of his apartments were in the 2900 block of N. Calvert St., only a block away from my childhood home. Mr. Williams was damned by a lot of !B residents, who blamed him for the actions of any disreputable tenant in 1950s Charles Village.
Come to think of it, people to this day groan when they speak his name. He was no faceless landlord. Many a day he could be seen walking around the neighborhood, showing apartments or carrying a load of building materials.
One particular building material earned him a neighborhood nickname -- "Plywood" Williams. It surely fit.
The man was a master at buying roomy old Baltimore houses and cutting them up into a myriad apartments. The partitions were plywood, a material he loved. An old tenant of his said she never knew when he and his workmen would be invading her privacy with buckets of paint, nails, hammers and, of course, plywood.
She recalled that just after World War II, housing was in short supply, but Mr. Williams always seemed to have apartments available.
The tenant recalled that rents were not low and that Mr. Williams was stingy with heat. One day, a tall friend of a tenant grew annoyed at the chill and climbed high to the out-of-reach thermostat and set it a few degrees higher. Within a week, Mr. Williams had a locked plywood box built around the thermostat to prevent tenants from helping themselves to extra heat.
A prominent local real estate broker once said laughingly that he dare not show Mr. Williams certain houses for fear that he might buy them and immediately convert them into the absolute legal limit of apartments.
Those who defended Mr. Williams found him an adroit businessman who was flexible and understanding. He'd rent a furnished apartment on short notice. If you needed a pot or a pan or an extra dresser, he'd find one fast. He was legendary among Johns Hopkins University undergraduates, who constituted a large number of his tenants. He liked people and enjoyed the end of summer when the students returned.
It didn't take much to get him talking about his second career as a newspaperman. He began writing for The Sun as a 16-year-old free-lancer, at two cents a line and $4 a column.
As the son of the Brooklyn postmistress, he knew that part of the city and northern Anne Arundel County. He soon became a first-rate reporter, who was especially knowledgeable about the waterfront. He retired as The Sun's real estate editor in 1962 on his 65th birthday, just short of 50 years' association with the paper.
Mr. Williams' real estate acumen allowed him to buy a home larger than that of his boss. He once had a sprawling English manor-type residence in the 4600 block of Milbrook Road. It just happened to be next door to that of William Schmick, publisher of The Sun, who openly fretted that his real estate editor might live up to his reputation and partition the mansion into apartments.
Mr. Williams retired from the paper after an editor challenged him for writing for a local real estate publication. He bristled at this treatment and in retirement often fulminated against The Sun. A few years later, he got a chance to settle the score when police summoned him to one of his Calvert Street apartments, where a young woman had been abducted earlier. He recognized this had the makings of a big news story in sleepy Baltimore. So he called the rival News American and gave the exclusive to Eddie Ballard, the city editor.
Mr. Williams drove his station wagon, with plywood dangling out the back, until last year, when his body just wore out, an employee said. But he still kept the books on his rental accounts in an apartment in a house where his daughter also had an apartment. Up to the end, he watched his favorite television show, "The Price Is Right," the employee said.