At the end of the month, photographs come off the walls and the congratulatory plaques get boxed as Ed Ward, executive director of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, retires after 13 years.
Mr. Ward took over as director when the chamber rented a tiny second-floor office near the courthouse on Main Street in Bel Air. There were 160 members then. Now, there are 1,400, making the Harford chamber the largest in the state, according to Mr. Ward. During those years, the county's population grew from about 150,000 to more than 200,000.
"I've spent the last 13 years wrapping the chamber around my family," said Mr. Ward, 68, who's retiring to spend more time with Pat, his wife of 41 years, and their four grandchildren. "Now I want to spend time with them."
Mr. Ward grew up in Baltimore, near Clifton Park. He and his family moved to Harford 37 years ago and live in Howard Park in west Bel Air.
Mr. Ward, who was drafted to fight in World War II as a teen-ager, attended Loyola College and earned a degree in journalism in 1950. He worked for a glass manufacturing company for 21 years before joining the chamber.
"Ed gave everything he had to the chamber. I think he talked 'chamber' in his sleep," said Chuck Boyle, owner of Boyle Buick in Abingdon. "He never missed an opportunity to promote the county."
Paul Gilbert, Harford County's director of economic development, agreed. "Ed Ward was one heck of a salesman when it came to promoting this county," he said.
Mr. Boyle, who was president of the 20-year-old chamber for two years, and Mr. Gilbert, like other chamber members, said Mr. Ward brought credibility to the chamber, a big advantage in attracting new members and retaining existing ones.
And higher membership numbers meant more clout for the nonpartisan organization.
"We became enough of a group that we had an influence on legislation," Mr. Boyle said. "The state legislature paid attention to what we said, and for the first time we could be proactive, not reactive."
Mr. Ward said local and state government officials welcomed the chamber's aid. "Sometimes they were on the fence and needed our guidance. They knew that we were here to help county businesses, and they would usually go along with what we pushed for," he said.
For example, the chamber, working with the state delegation, successfully lobbied the General Assembly to allow food, gas and lodging signs to be placed along Interstate 95. "Ed is the one that said, 'Let's show travelers what we've got in this county,' " Mr. Boyle said.
The signs, placed near every county exit along I-95 in the late 1980s, provided a nearly instant sales boost for many hotels, restaurants and gas stations. "It has helped us tremendously," said Marilyn Martino, who runs Giovanni's restaurant in Edgewood with her husband and sons.
"The signs were very helpful to us because many travelers, especially older ones and some younger ones, are tired of fast food. After driving all day, they want to eat somewhere where they can sit down and relax," she said. Giovanni's has been in business on U.S. 40 for 15 years.
Mrs. Martino had high praise for Mr. Ward. She said he could bring people together to get things done, invaluable in an organization that depends on volunteers.
The chamber has three employees in addition to Mr. Ward, who is paid $40,000, up from $15,000 when he started. More than half the chamber's $240,000 budget comes from annual membership dues -- from $125 to $475, depending on the number of employees in a company. The chamber president, who is not paid, is chosen by members every year.
"We are very frugal. Our building is practically paid for. Others may have nicer buildings, but ours is paid for," Mr. Ward said.
As executive director, Mr. Ward produced a monthly newsletter and arranged events such as trade shows, breakfasts and luncheons with speakers and business card exchanges. Mr. Boyle said the gatherings are more than just a chance to shake hands with other business people.
For example, Mr. Boyle said, he had most of his printing done by an out-of-state company but shifted it back to the county when he met printers who could do the same job.