Barbara O'Malley is learning what it means to be the mayor's mom the hard way. A year ago no one was asking her age for publication. ("Can I ask you your age?" "You can, but don't.") No one wanted the scoop on whether Martin was a naughty little boy. (She says no, but the mayor admits that on rare occasions "I felt the back of her hand on my butt.")
If a reporter comes to her Rockville home a year from now, Mrs. O'Malley will probably be dressed in slacks or whatever she wears on her day off from working as a receptionist in Senator Barbara Mikulski's office. But today, while she's still fairly new to the business of being First Mom of Baltimore, she's wearing a nice blue suit. The pale blue shell underneath turns her eyes pale blue, every silvery hair is in place and her soft face is made up just a little.
She looks like Mom, like exactly the Irish mom you want your mayor to have, a stay-at-home mother who taught him and his siblings to try their hardest and always tell the truth.
"I'm glad you came," she says. "It gave me a chance to relive the past, simple though it may be."
But, of course, no one's past is simple, least of all Barbara O'Malley's. You'd have to leave out the part about how she talked her folks into letting her get her pilot's license in high school, before she could drive.
You'd have to do what a lot of people do, and assume the mayor's mother is Irish because of the name, and because of the kelly green velvet couch in the living room, the Irish music she played for her six kids, the Irish stew family recipe she gives to a local magazine.
Actually both her parents were German, and there's some Dutch in the mix.
"They think they're all Irish," she says of her brood, "But I tell them they got their tenacity and stoicism from their German [heritage], and frugality and cleanliness from the Dutch."
Politics in the family
Just as you've heard, Barbara O'Malley, wife of lawyer Tom O'Malley, was a stay-at-home mom for two girls, Bridget and Eileen, and then four boys, Martin, Patrick and the twins, Peter and Paul. They lived in a three-bedroom house in Bethesda, and then moved to a bigger one in Rockville when the younger kids arrived.
"I was a housewife," she says. "I thought that was what you did."
But she was also a Democrat from an early age -- a dyed-in-the-wool, loyal-to-the-death Democrat. "I can't imagine being a Republican," she says now.
Her political heroes were Adlai Stevenson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. (Her father once won $10 from Vice President Truman in a poker game.) She worked in a local congressional campaign before she was old enough to vote.
She may have been a stay-at-home mother, but she wrote on the future mayor's second birthday cake: "Martin for President 2004."
"I was lucky, she was always encouraging," says Martin O'Malley. "In our family, politics was considered something good to do, not some con game as so many people do. How does the saying go? Expectations become behavior."
His mother was the one who talked him into running for student council president in the seventh grade, with slogans like "Rally, Rally Around O'Malley" and "Dial O for O'Malley."
And she even put up with the fact -- now here's a loving mother -- that Martin worked for a Republican in his first foray into politics. At age 7, he and his brother Patrick handed out brochures in support of James Gleason, a friend of their father's who was running for Montgomery County executive.
But take a tour of the O'Malleys' Rockville home and you understand why the Democratic party was in no danger of losing Martin to the opposition for long. Barbara O'Malley has hung the walls with antique campaign ribbons, her extensive collection of campaign buttons, and any number of political photographs. There are photos of John Kennedy, of herself and Adlai Stevenson, of her father standing near FDR and, more recently, of herself shaking hands with Al Gore at Senator Mikulski's office.
"I grew up with it," she says. "Politics was just something you talked about around the house."
Her father, Joseph Suelzer, was a local politician in Indiana during the New Deal. "He was very successful in a short span of time," says Tom O'Malley, her husband. "His death [just after she graduated from high school] was a big loss to her. She brought the kids up pursuing her father's ideals."
But she didn't work much on Martin O'Malley's mayoral campaign. "I felt a little funny being the mother of the candidate," she explains.
So did she give him any advice? "No, not really. Just if you're going to run for it, you better know what you're doing."
Testing her wings
Barbara Suelzer was born an undetermined number of years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She went to grade school at St. Patrick's and then attended Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne.
In 1943, while still in high school, she joined the Civil Air Patrol, part of the civilian war effort. "You did what you could," she says. "You flattened cans and saved grease. I saw B24s flying right over the tree tops. That's when I became in interested in airplanes."
Her last year in high school she wrote a long letter to her father explaining that she wanted to take flying lessons.
No way, he wrote back.
"My mother intercepted [his] letter and talked him into it. I got $100 for graduation, and it went to flying lessons." In those days, she says, all you basically had to do to fly an airplane was to make sure you had gas and watch your speed and altitude.
Her first passenger was her father. "I made one turn and he said, 'That's enough of that.'"
After high school she worked at the counter of the Intercity Flying Service in Indiana for a salary of $15 a week, just to be around planes.
"If you love airplanes," she says, "It's fun to be around airports. No matter what airport I go to now, I still get the same feeling."
But her father died in 1947 at the age of 49. She quit her job and moved back to Fort Wayne. "I didn't fly much after that," she says. "I thought my mother would worry."
She worked in Fort Wayne and then for 15 months in Washington for Congressman Edward Kruse. When he failed to get reelected in 1950, she returned to Indiana and got a job in his law office.
She stayed interested in politics, and in the mid-50s served as a national committeewoman for the Young Democrats. Which is how she met the mayor's father, who was practicing law in Washington.
"It didn't take long," she says. "I met him [at the Young Democrats' headquarters] in May of '54 and he proposed on July 4. How 'bout that for independence?"
They were married Nov. 20, "The same day I got fired. I got a notice that they didn't need me any longer. OK. I had given my all to my party. "Little did I know."
She had her first baby in 1955 and then stayed home for the next 33 years. "The first two were born so close together [14 months apart] I used to say I couldn't be any busier if I had had twins. Then I found out I could." "She's an incredibly devoted mom," says her daughter-in-law, Katie O'Malley. "She created really confident, well-adjusted kids. She was always there for them. She's a good role model."
"She's documented everything about their lives," she adds. And, indeed, the O'Malley house is filled with photograph albums. Each funny little picture of smiling children is carefully labeled and dated on the back. "They're lucky to have so much history about their lives."
But Barbara O'Malley's work in politics? What happened to it? "I didn't have time. It just faded away like the airplanes. I never thought I could get back to it."
Back to work
But get back to it she did, with her job in Senator Mikulski's office. Thirteen years ago, when the twins were in their last year of high school, her children urged her to get out of the house. "Mom," her son Martin said, "Isn't it about time you went back to work?" "We all realized she had too much to offer to stay at home," says Tom O'Malley. "On the political scene she's in tune with people's feelings, anticipates people's needs, and takes care of them." Just as a good mother does.
The mayor was also the one who encouraged Barbara O'Malley to volunteer as a docent at the National Air and Space Museum in 1976. "I never thought I'd be back in the airplane business again," she says. "I learned a lot more about aviation history in those 11 years."
She still serves as a librarian in the museum's 1000-volume library for docents. But she doesn't have much time anymore, what with getting home from work as late as 7 p.m., and keeping tabs on eight granddaughters and one grandson.
All the O'Malley children, not just the mayor, are success stories, from Bridget, who's a CPA, to Peter, who this month passed the bar exam.
If Barbara O'Malley had to pick one way she contributed to her children's success, what would it be? "They all knew," she says, "That if they didn't do right they'd be in trouble."