SWANTON -- Mary Kitzmiller has shuffled across the wood-planked floors of Swanton Grocery for about 25 years now, sold a lot of Tootsie Rolls to the kids in town, a lot of milk and meat to their parents.
She's watched the kids grow, move away, make themselves successes and come back. And she's greeted them by name at their return, just as she bid them farewell.
Meghan Price moved away, to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, and Kitzmiller, 68, knew the popular young girl with the ever-flashing smile would return a success as well. Kitzmiller, like just about everybody else in town, was rooting for her.
That's what has made the loss of Price, a senior who in October became the university's student government president, so excruciating, not only for her family, but for the grocer and teachers and laborers in this little Garrett County town.
Price, with her grandfather Carl Talmadge Johnson, was killed Tuesday in a car wreck, not a mile from her home.
"It's like a community here, you see?" says Kitzmiller as she looks up from slicing bacon for the grocery's meat cooler. "I don't mean community like a city or a place, but like a community, people who get along and care about each other."
Price was 20 when she was killed. Aside from her post as president, she was a member of several honor societies, a top scholar who intended to pursue a career in politics, a young woman from a small town who rose to the top of a campus of 32,000 students.
"She crossed all bounds in terms of communities, which was very appropriate in her position as president of the student association," says Craig Slack, assistant director of campus programs, who works with student government. "She wasn't just representing one particular faction on campus."
In the tiny town of Swanton, people had taken pride in Price's successes, as they do for the successes of anybody from their hometown. They shared in the loss as well, for many reasons.
Garrett County, on its worst days, is an unspeakably beautiful tableau of Maryland real estate, with hills that roll gracefully, the skyline formed only by trees, grain silos, farmhouses and red brick chimneys blowing puffs of smoke.
Small-town life tough
For all of its beauty, though, jobs here are scarce. The second-largest employer in the county, Bausch & Lomb Inc., closed about two years ago. The largest employer, Westvaco Paper Co., employs almost 2,000 people, but many of them come from neighboring Allegany County and from West Virginia, and there are not enough jobs to go around for all the Garrett County people who want one.
Unemployment in the county stands at 8.1 percent, more than double that of Maryland.
By no means are the bulk of the people here poor, but life in little mountain towns can be tough, and a mutual dependence is shared by the worst off and the best.
In the hearts of a lot of people here, that translates into shared success when a local makes good and shared loss over a death such as Price's.
"I don't know how you produce a kid like Meghan, but I can tell you that we look out for our kids here, we push them and when we see one with the potential that Meghan had, we try to cultivate her qualities all we can," said her ninth-grade teacher, Monty Nock.
Children must leave town
Parents like Charles Roberson raise their children knowing they will almost certainly move away some day, and not just for college, but beyond.
"There's just not much here in the way of jobs," says Roberson, who works at Westvaco. "If you want a job, you have to go to school. If you want a good job, you have to do good in school -- and then probably move away."
That thought is ingrained in kids here from their youngest days by parents who have watched the plants close and the coal mines shut down. Swanton, which grew up along the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad near Backbone Mountain, is no longer the bustling little timber town generations before knew.
And so the community. And so the parents who know that for their children to succeed financially, they need to succeed academically.
"For our kids, it was never a question of whether they'd go to college or not. It was just a given," says Price's mother, Karlyn Price, a special education teacher. "I think Meghan was special, and that accounts a lot for her accomplishments. But, see, in this area, there's so much attention focused on sports at school, at band at school. School is really where the focus is."
Extra attention helps
Price's best friend, Kelly Ryan, went through Garrett County schools to become a chemical engineering major at West Virginia University. A good career was one of her motivations for going away to college, but it was the community, she says, that helped prepare her.
"I think in a place like this, maybe you get more attention than you would somewhere else," she says. "You get attention from family and friends, but even from strangers."
Fewer than 30,000 people live in Garrett, the most sparsely populated county in the state. In towns such as Swanton, where the post office closes at noon so the clerk can go to lunch, it is not cliched exaggeration to say that everybody knows everybody else.
Price's 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, says that keeps kids his age focused on school and sports and succeeding.
"You just know," he explains, "that if you do something wrong, everybody's going to know about it. Everybody knows your ZTC business. It's not like you can get away with anything if you wanted to. Everybody knows how you're doing, so there's almost like a competition to do good."
College mourns, too
Price's accomplishments were not lost on her fellow students at College Park. "It's a great loss to the students and to the school, and to everyone further down the road," says Tom Michael, a senior from Union Bridge.
Michael has been in touch with several dozen students who will be going to Garrett County on Saturday and Sunday to pay their respects. Students also intend to honor Price with a moment of silence at the Maryland-Duke basketball game this weekend, which she had planned to attend with her brother.
Back in Swanton, Kitzmiller, the grocer, says everybody was keeping an eye on Price's accomplishments. They were impressive, she says, but there was more to the young woman than certificates and honors. "Oh, she had more awards that anybody I ever heard of," Kitzmiller says. "But you know what else? She was a real nice girl, too. She was raised real good. Everybody in this town will miss her."
Contributions to a scholarship in Price's name may be sent to First United Bank, Second Street, Oakland 21550.
Pub Date: 12/31/98