In middle of ice storm, a simple act of helping


THERE WAS ICE on the parking lot, ice on her car, ice everywhere. Last Thursday night, memorable for its frozen sheen and big power outages, Judy Gilbert, a 55-year-old legal secretary who'd worked late at Piper & Marbury in downtown Baltimore, found herself alone at the Rogers Avenue Metro stop. It was 10 o'clock.


And freezing.

Gilbert scraped the ice-lacquered door frame of her car with a key. She pulled hard at the handle. She slipped on the ice. The door didn't budge.

She spotted two young guys -- "Ninety percent of the population appears young to me," she says -- as they slid along Rogers Avenue. She called to them for help. One of them pulled the car door open.

"I spent the next half-hour scraping ice off the windows," Gilbert says.

As she started to drive home, she heard a strange sound from under the car.

A flat tire.

She pulled her 10-year-old Honda Accord into the Exxon station at Northern Parkway and Reisterstown Road. She stepped gingerly over the ice, grabbed the air hose and tried to inflate the tire. When that didn't work, she looked around for help. "There was no one at the gas station except for a female attendant whose sole duty was to take cash," Gilbert says. "If I had a cellular phone, who would I call? I'm not a member of any auto club. I'm a transplant to Baltimore and, though I have friends, I don't have relatives who might feel obligated to look after me if I get in trouble."

She thought about walking home, a trek of between six and seven miles to the north.

Just then, one Starsfield Williams Jr. drove his car into the gas station, stepped out and started pumping gas. Gilbert sized him up: "Nice looking, nice car. Why not ask him for help?"

Why not ask him for a ride home?

Because as a child she'd been taught never to speak to strangers. Because she was a woman and he was a man. Because she was middle-aged and he appeared to be in his 20s. Because she was white and he was black. Because of all those poisonous thoughts that fly instantly into our heads, fill us with fears and render us too afraid to speak and to act, too jaded to believe that the good among us outnumber the bad.

"How would you like to make some money?" Judith Gilbert asked.

"Do you need some help?" asked Williams.

Gilbert explained her situation, said she needed a ride home.

"No problem," said Williams, just like that. He agreed to give her a lift. He refused to take her money. "If you were my sister or my mom," he said, "I would want someone to do the same for them."

During the ride home, Gilbert and Williams chatted -- about their jobs, about Williams' work with abused and abandoned kids at a residential program in Northeast Baltimore called Aunt Hattie's Place, about his aspiration to become a screenwriter, about the films of Spike Lee and Maya Angelou.

"We had a really good conversation," Williams recalls. "She told me about how she didn't have family here, and I thought about how hard that must be, not just when you have a problem, but any day."

"I felt very comfortable with him," Gilbert says.

Comfortable enough to give him the keys to her car and ask him to move it to a safe place the next day.

Friday morning, Gilbert was due to fly to Pittsburgh for a cousin's memorial service, then to Rochester, N.Y., for her elderly father's birthday. Williams readily agreed to help her out.

"I handed over the keys to the car, and we exchanged business cards," Gilbert says. "I got out and tried to walk to my apartment. I slid backwards. He took me by the elbow and guided me to where I could walk safely."

Gilbert told Williams she'd be back in Baltimore on Monday night.

"I drove back to her car and changed the tire," Williams says. "I didn't want to leave it [at the Exxon station] in jeopardy, so I left my car there and drove her car to my community [Gwynn Oak]. I had a friend drive me back to get my car."

The Honda stayed in Williams' neighborhood over the long weekend. Tuesday night, he drove it back to Judy Gilbert's apartment complex.

"He really went way out of his way on an icy evening," says Gilbert. "It's the story of a young man helping an older woman, of a black helping a white, of a very generous heart."

The people at the Port Discovery Children's Museum apparently chose well when they selected Starsfield Williams Jr. for an honor. His face appears on a "community hero" poster at the museum -- recognition of his efforts to help the troubled boys who come to Aunt Hattie's Place. Someone so engaged in life, in helping others, doesn't regard as extravagant a good deed on an icy night.

"I didn't see this as any big deal," Williams says. "It was very simple to me. You just have to do the right thing. ... I come from a Christian home, and that's a reality for me, not just a title. I'm not always Mr. Good Samaritan. I don't always make decisions in the best interests of someone else. But my dad -- the ultimate example of manhood in my life, a cornerstone of my family -- raised me to help, especially to help a woman. That's what a man does. A true man."

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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