At midmorning, a heavy, gray-haired man standing at the locked security door of Howard County's 911 emergency center in Ellicott City said, "This is Santa Claus. Please open the door."
Carolyn Phillips did and then collapsed in hysterical laughter at the sight of County Executive James N. Robey wearing a red hat and carrying a tray of cookies.
"I know his voice," she said, explaining between gasps of laughter.
Robey surprised scores of employees with holiday cheer yesterday at government buildings, ranging from the county government center in Ellicott City to the county's sewage treatment plant in Savage. It was the first of a two-day swing through all the government's facilities.
"It's just a way of wishing them happy holidays and telling them that I'm here and I'm accessible," Robey said before starting from his office. The distribution of cookies replaced an annual holiday reception for county workers held in past years at the government office complex.
The former police chief began the day wearing battery-powered, musical reindeer antlers. He switched to firmer, brown fuzzy ones a bit later, and then tried a bright green and red elf's hat. He finally went with the cone-shaped, red Santa's hat, complete with white ball.
Everywhere, he solemnly told county workers that he had spent the night baking the cookies, occasionally even fooling someone.
"You must be a Renaissance man," teased Phyllis Madachy, director of the county's Office on Aging.
Humble to a fault, Robey told Pia Jordan, executive producer of the cable Channel 15 daily newscast, to refer to him as "Jim," rather than "Sir" or "Mr. Robey."
His elves for the day were Victoria Goodman and Kathy Sloan, public information office employees who, wearing large elf hats borrowed from Columbia's Symphony of Lights display, hauled platters and baskets filled with five dozen holiday cookies they bought from a local grocery store.
By 1 p.m., they were all complaining about sore arm muscles from hours of holding the goodies, but the employees loved the unexpected attention.
"This lets him take his hat off and come down and be with normal people. The staff needs this," said Timothy Borum, a county planner. With tight economic times curtailing employee pay raises in recent years, "morale is down," Borum said.
Diane McCallum of Laurel, her son, Joseph, and his playmate, Michael, both 4, were accosted by the merry trio while she filled out a job application form in the human resources office. She at first had no idea who the man with the cookies was, but was pleased to find out as her young charges each picked out two cookies.
"I'm shocked," she said upon learning Robey's identity. "You guys have a blessed Christmas," she told him.
In the mail room, Brian Kramer labored over a stack of notices he was printing when Robey and his entourage burst in with ringing holiday bells and a hearty "Ho, ho, ho."
"It's a good idea," Kramer said. "I've never met him before."
If the office workers in Ellicott City were surprised, the maintenance and lab workers at Little Patuxent Water and Reclamation Plant in Savage were astonished.
"It's nice that you came down to visit us. I never met the last executive," said Grace Loverde, a six-year employee in the plant's water-testing lab.
Outside, Robey had only one complaint -- brought to him by a strong, cold westerly wind blowing over the huge, circular treatment pools.
"No matter how you treat it, it still smells like what it is," he observed, marveling later at the tiny fish living in a huge glass tank filled with treated water in the administration building's lobby. Officials said they try to keep the odor from escaping the plant's grounds, but sometimes it can't be helped.
Robey had lunch at the county detention center in Jessup, where staff and county officials had a holiday buffet of turkey, ham and homemade pies. Inmates were later served the same menu, Director Melanie C. Pereira said.
"Did you cook this? Will you marry me?" Robey asked a laughing Louise Martin, the center's dietary supervisor.
Later, Robey visited employees in east Columbia's Gateway office park, where 14 police recruits got the holiday treatment during a slide lecture on child support, and then spread cheer at the animal shelter off Route 108 nearby.
Today, Robey is scheduled to visit the Southern District police station, the Dayton-Cooksville area and the Department of Recreation and Parks on Oakland Mills Road in Columbia.
Pub Date: 12/23/98