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Small-town mayor is leaving big legacy


BARNESVILLE -- Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House when Elizabeth Ray Hays Tolbert was first elected mayor of this tiny town in northern Montgomery County.

Presidents have come and gone since then, but only now is Lib Tolbert retiring after three decades at the helm of this quaint rural crossroads.

Today, for the first time since 1975, she will not be on the ballot when Barnesville's 157 residents cast their votes in Bob Lillard's garage for the town's three commissioners. The top vote-getter by tradition becomes mayor, a post Tolbert has held for all but six years since 1965.

"I've decided at 75, it's better to leave the party while you're having fun," says Tolbert, the town's oldest resident.

Fun is one word for it. In a town with only one part-time municipal employee, the buck usually stops at the door of Tolbert's 200-year-old white frame house, with its green shutters and newly painted green tin roof. There is no town hall, so the commissioners often meet around her mahogany dining room table to hash out how to spend an annual budget of just $33,000.

"If the electricity goes off in the middle of the night, who gets the call? I do," Tolbert says as she fields official calls from her front parlor. She's even been summoned from sleep to help chase down errant sheep and horses.

"You just have to have a sense of humor," she adds.

"She's there for anybody when they need her, which seems to be often," says the town clerk, Patricia Menke, whose husband, Peter, also is a commissioner. "Everybody's always calling her, asking her questions; ... she's very friendly, [but] very honest. She speaks her mind and everybody appreciates that."

Over the years, Tolbert has fought with wit and pluck to keep Barnesville, chartered in 1747, an oasis of small-town quiet in the hurly-burly of the state's most populous county. Her gravelly voice has been raised in defense of Montgomery's rural heritage, opposing (in vain) a trash-burning power plant in nearby Dickerson and a proposed new Potomac River bridge that she warns would bury her community under a torrent of traffic.

That things have changed so little here over the past few decades is a testament, say townsfolk and admirers, to her political savvy and her plain-spoken charm.

"She understands people, she understands policy, and she knows how to get things done," says Del. Mark K. Shriver, a Montgomery Democrat whose district encompasses Barnesville. "She's also funny and fun."

Shriver is just one of many local and state politicians who have made pilgrimages to Tolbert's house for her advice and endorsement. Shriver, the son of R. Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, called her when he was considering running for the legislature eight years ago and sat down with her at her mahogany table -- an antique at which Confederate Gen. J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart once dined. She is the fifth generation of her family to occupy the house, and the third to serve as mayor.

Other notables to pay her homage include Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

"She's been a real help to me," Duncan says. "She took me under her wing a long time ago and helped steer me through a lot of campaigns." She has been honorary chairwoman of Duncan's campaigns for county executive.

The northern third of Montgomery has been set aside as an agricultural preserve, and Duncan says Tolbert's has been one of the county's leading voices to keep encroaching development at bay. For that reason alone, the executive says, many politicians campaigning in the county seek her out.

But her influence extends well beyond Montgomery's borders, in part because of her long involvement with the Maryland Municipal League, an association representing the state's municipal governments. She was the league's president in the late 1980s.

Tolbert has been invited to the White House twice -- though one of those must have been a computer glitch, she says jokingly.

She was summoned to a meeting of mayors during the Reagan administration to discuss federal transportation grants. But Tolbert -- who describes herself as a "yellow-dog Democrat" -- says, "I had nothing to contribute. This town has never had a grant, period."

After the briefing, when a White House reporter stuck a microphone in her face and asked her if she would be dining with President Reagan and the visiting Mother Theresa, Tolbert replied that she was going home to pick peas.

"The reason people know about Barnesville is because of Lib," says Maureen Dolan, the town's postmaster, whose post office also serves as an unofficial recycling center, lending library and water cooler for trading news and gossip.

Dolan, 44, lives in nearby Poolesville, but she used to live here and still turns out for the town's annual Christmas caroling, Halloween party, and covered-dish dinner in February. Those seasonal gatherings are part of what make Barnesville special, she says.

Despite such community gatherings, it has not always been easy to maintain harmony. Tolbert says her most unpleasant task as mayor was to take a town resident before the county animal control board because his barking dogs were disturbing visitors to a funeral home.

"Once or twice I've had to intervene when neighbors complain, but we try to work things out strictly between neighbors," the mayor says.

Working things out gets more complicated as the town changes. The original rural families -- her father was a dairy farmer -- are giving way to professionals and others inclined to commute "down county" and into Washington.

Barnesville has planning and zoning authority to control its growth, but Washington-oriented development has leapfrogged over Barnesville into Frederick County. The town's "rush hour" has grown so much that the commissioners recently agreed to spend $11,000 for a mobile radar device, which tries to slow passing vehicles by displaying their speed.

Houston Miller, a 46-year-old chemistry professor at George Washington University who has lived here 21 years, is running for the two-year commissioner spot Tolbert is vacating, but he stresses, "I am definitely not out to replace Lib Tolbert. ... She's a very special person in Maryland politics, and represents a fairly unique point of view."

Miller says he shares Tolbert's passion for preserving the rural way of life in upper Montgomery. Their only difference may be in approach -- he says he and other newer residents are less afraid to dip into the town's cash reserves of $178,000, perhaps to keep a modern "McMansion" out by buying empty land and turning it into a park.

Tolbert comes from a more frugal tradition. She says she even gently chided her fellow commissioners for planning a covered-dish dinner to honor her Saturday.

"I said 'Now look, you're spending taxpayers' money. You can't do that.'"

Tolbert says she's decided to step down now so she can travel more and visit her family -- she and her late husband, an Air Force officer, had a daughter and three sons, one of whom lives with her -- and friends. But she says she has no plans to drop out of town life.

"I'm not going anywhere," she says. "I'm going to the other end of the table and be a citizen."

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