Young Turk

As a first-grader in Essex, Steven L. Lawrence submitted an oversized and colorful Thanksgiving drawing of the Mayflower bringing Pilgrims to their new home in 1620.

After some thought, the child retrieved the work from his teacher and pasted on a page bearing his hand-crafted depiction of a rock, Plymouth Rock.


Even then, Lawrence insisted on historical accuracy.

Now 18, Lawrence has been elected president of the Heritage Society of Essex-Middle River to infuse new energy and ideas into an organization, founded in 1968, that he believes has grown stodgy and unimaginative.


The youth movement irritated some, including society trustees who nonetheless altered the organization's by-laws to allow someone younger than 21 to be president.

The senior members of the organization reluctantly elected young Lawrence to his new position in hopes of his drawing new and younger members to the society.

"I was very concerned about it, and I wasn't the only one," says Clay D. Kimball, the society's secretary, who has also served on its nine-member board. "A lot had to do with youth and personality. He might be charged up today, but will he get three months down the road and say he has better things to do?"

The man Lawrence replaced as president, Henry J. Griffith Jr., left the society in protest over Lawrence's unanimous election and the alteration of the by-laws, according to Kimball. "But the new president has a good staff, and he appears ... willing to listen," Kimball says.

Adds society historian Paul M. Blitz, who pushed for Lawrence's nomination, "[His] election is a bold step for the organization and its future."

What Lawrence brings to the position, Kimball says, is the hope that he will draw younger members into the society. Although the group has about 200 members, only 15 to 20 attend its monthly meetings.

To some, Lawrence seems too young to lead an organization of officers and members who are, for the most part, many years his senior. Others say they see a bright rebel with a cause, a serious teen-ager with responsibility, leadership qualities and imagination.

As the society's seventh president, Lawrence takes over the museum operated by the Essex group and hopes he can spark a new appreciation of eastern Baltimore County's past with his leadership. Specializing in early American life, the museum at 516 Eastern Blvd. is in a renovated 1920 fire and police station, which has been designated a county historical landmark.


The museum is closed in January and February and reopens the first Sunday in March. The facility features a so-called "avenue of shops" with a period general store, school room and candle shop. The red brick building also features historic photographs, newspaper clippings and arrowheads dating back 400 years.

The new president will have to make certain the museum is staffed by volunteers each Sunday and for group tours and lecture requests.

"None of this is a surprise," says Brenda DeGori, coordinator of Kenwood High School's International Baccalaureate program, from which Lawrence graduated last year. "Steven was a very mature young man in the ninth grade."

Coming of age

Lawrence lost his mother, Dianna, during his senior year. A standout athlete, welder and production manager, she died of cancer at age 39.

"I made all the arrangements," recalls Lawrence, sitting in the sunny living room of the new condominium in White Marsh he shares with his grandmother, Helen Lawrence.


His father, Gary, and 14-year-old sister, Helen, remain at their house on Norman Creek on Essex's east side, packing furniture so they can join Steven and his grandmother in White Marsh.

"My mother was a big influence on my life," he says. "She was fiercely independent and a hard worker. Her illness and death pretty much made life in my senior year very difficult."

Says DeGori: "Steven just assumed lots of adult responsibility when he lost his mom. That's how he was, doing things beyond his years."

After graduating from Kenwood, Lawrence earned a partial scholarship to Loyola College in Baltimore, where he is majoring in political science with a minor in pre-law. He works part-time weekday afternoons at White Marsh Mall.

"Tuition alone for one year of college is $25,000," Lawrence says. "I have to do something to make some money."

Lawrence attends college in the morning, goes to work, then tackles hours of homework. After being elected to the unpaid job of Heritage Society president, he resigned from a volunteer position at St. John's Lutheran Church in Essex "because my plate is really getting full."


Finding a fresh start

Lawrence says his appreciation for and knowledge of history make him a qualified leader at the heritage museum.

When he was a child, his parents and grandparents operated antiques stores and traveled the auction circuit in Maryland. By age 8, he had been introduced to Civil War re-enactments by his father, and the pair traveled from the Bull Run battle site to Gettysburg, soaking up and reliving the past.

"History was always around me. My dad even collected Roman and colonial-era coins," Lawrence says. "I guess that's why I'm not much on new things; they seem to have lowered quality. I long for character."

Around his condo are expressions of that character. Lawrence points to an almost century-old Baldwin clock on the mantel. His grandmother points out a showcase with displays of crystal and Fenton glass, and pink, green and blue Depression-era glass pieces.

Lawrence says he would like to see better use of the heritage museum, perhaps by bringing in grade-school pupils as regular visitors and expanding a speaker's service. He would also like to introduce historical speeches, such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, enhanced with sound and pictures.


"I'm not saying every idea I have is right, but we have to be more dynamic," Lawrence says. "I have an idea that perhaps we could start making candles and soap in a general store-type setting at the museum. We need to expand the membership, attract additional volunteer workers to keep the place open longer."

Lawrence says he reluctantly makes concessions to technological advances "because of all the information before us; the computer is something I use in college. But with more use of the Internet, the less we see of imagination. It dulls the senses."

Print a letter on the computer? Are you crazy? he seems to ask in his look at a visitor. "Personally, I prefer to write a letter or note in longhand. I use the old 'dip pen' method. I also refuse to use cordless telephones."

A visitor asked Lawrence if he admired anyone in contemporary America, or if he has any heroes. Bill Gates? Michael Eisner?

A long pause, then he says, "I think my hero is Napoleon. Yes, he was radical and egomaniacal, but he also did a lot for France. He was so progressive, way before his time, like when he standardized France's currency."