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Nearly 2,000 stories and many memories


CRISFIELD - For all his wandering about Delmarva, Charles Norris "Scorchy" Tawes has never met a stranger, he has never lacked for stories and he's never ceased to be fascinated by the rural peninsula where he knows somebody "just about everywhere."

Tawes believes that pretty much anyone has a story, and if people trust you, they'll tell the truth. Now, after a lifetime of putting their stories on film and video, the 81-year-old is spending a good chunk of what is supposed to be retirement hunched in front of a desktop computer or out wandering his bayside hometown with a digital camera.

For more than 25 years, the former commercial photographer turned out nearly 2,000 stories, working as a roving features reporter, something of a poor man's Charles Kuralt, for WBOC television, the CBS affiliate in Salisbury about 30 miles away.

"I had the best job in the world," says Tawes, who got his nickname as a tow-headed youngster. "I had air time assigned to me, nobody told me what to do, when to work, when to go home. Even the owners of the station never knew what I was doing until it went on the air."

Slowed by age and a variety of ailments - a heart attack, for one - Tawes quit in 1998, but the station keeps him on retainer as a "senior contributor" and reruns the best of Scorchy's Corner every weekend. He picks the shows, writes an introduction for each and sends it along by e-mail.

Nowadays, his regional celebrity has lent itself to the annual Scorchy Tawes Pro-Am Fishing Tournament that ends tomorrow. The fund-raiser for the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce, now in its 16th year, could bring in $225,000 and award $70,000 in prize money to anglers this weekend if the weather is decent.

"Scorchy was always good at reporting about fishing, and it made sense to name the tournament after him," says Dana Tawes, a distant cousin whose branch of the family has run a local hardware store since 1888. "He's done an awful lot for Crisfield over the years. People know him all over."

Maybe there's a certain serendipity, Tawes says, to having a fishing tournament named for a guy who got started in television when he was asked to do an outdoors and fishing report on the Eastern Shore's first station.

That evolved into a thrice-weekly gig that Tawes says allowed him to meander anywhere he liked - Kiptopeake to Kent County, Bridgeville to Blackwater.

Charlie Paparella, a video photographer who worked with Tawes for several years, says the success of the segment went beyond Tawes' meticulous research and editing.

"All of it was self-taught. He was a gifted photographer who taught himself video, taught himself editing," says Paparella, who has moved on to produce a feature series at WBOC.

"Scorchy always wanted to do stories in a very gentle style," Paparella recalls. "He wanted stories about people whose stories hadn't been told. He did features, and his motto was 'never hurry, never worry.' He could do that because he wasn't a news reporter."

The Shore was his beat and even now, as he studies the neatly printed logs he has kept for each script, Tawes is hard-pressed to name his favorite.

It could have been the piece on Jim Richardson, a well-known boat builder, or the story on Bill Hammond of Felton, Del., who grew his own straw for handmade brooms.

"No, I think maybe it was a little blind girl in Seaford, Delaware," Tawes says. "Even though she was blind, she could just about do anything. I taught her how to fish, took her bass fishing. That was the story."

One project Tawes has tackled in retirement is compiling 27 hourlong videos of his down-home vignettes, tapes that are nearly overflowing on the shelves in his tiny second-floor office, a former darkroom Tawes calls his "hovel."

His wife, Jean, a compulsive housecleaner who married Tawes 63 years ago, refuses to enter the room, which is crammed with an old recliner, a desktop computer, speakers, a police scanner and assorted souvenirs and gifts - everything from Associated Press awards he received to a model skipjack and a stuffed muskrat.

Then there are files bulging with photographs he's compiled, black-and-white snapshots that allowed him to "eke out a living taking pictures in this little town." He has weddings, graduations, advertising.

And there is his latest project - a compilation he's working on. Crisfield, 100 Years in Photographs is the working title.

Along with photographs he has collected that predate his career, Tawes plans to include some of the hundreds of shots of his friends, decoy carvers Lem and Steve Ward or watermen he grew up with. He has shots of Crisfield, once the seafood capital of Maryland, in its heyday before most of the packing houses closed.

Tawes was there with a camera, probably the 1948 Nikon F he still owns, to chronicle the arrival of civil rights Freedom Riders during the 1960s. He documented big freeze-ups in the winters of 1958 and 1968, when the Chesapeake Bay froze solid.

"It wasn't meant to be art," Tawes says. "It was history."

Lately, Tawes, who has four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, acknowledges spending time in a wicker rocking chair on his enclosed front porch, maybe napping in the late afternoons. But just as he remembers getting hooked on television, a career move made at age 53, he says technology has gotten hold of him again.

This time, it's not the 35 mm Nikons or large-format Hassel- blads he sold a while back on eBay. It's his computer and digital camera that he insists is "the best damn little camera ever made." With some of the new television equipment available now, Scorchy's Corner might still be around.

"I fell in love with my computer," Tawes says. "There's nothing in the world that's not in that little box. If I were 10 or 15 years younger, I'd be spending like a drunken sailor on all this new technology."

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