Youth club closes doors


There was one last basketball game in the gym, one last round of soda and cheese pizza in the game room, and one last turn of the lock on the front door.

After 60 years of sports and cultural activities, there was silence at the Highlandtown Boys and Girls Club, where some of Baltimore's sports, business and political leaders say they learned much more than how to run a pigskin down the field or throw a fastball.

"It wasn't just an athletic club," said Ted Venetoulis, who in the 1950s was a regular at what was then called the Red Shield Boys Club and who was later elected Baltimore County executive. "It kept us off the street. It was just ... I can't tell you. It brings tears to my eyes."

Timonium ad executive and former NFL tight end David Pivec, an alumnus of the club who was coached by Venetoulis, said: "I walked up those steps a thousand times. The club is closing? What's happening to my roots? My God, that's incredible."

Officials with the Salvation Army, which opened the club at 511 S. Clinton St. in 1947, say that they had no choice but to close the three-story brick building.

They say nearby recreation programs, some of which have sleek new computer rooms and indoor swimming pools, and charge no membership fee, made it difficult for the boys and girls club - operating out of a cramped building and charging a $40 annual membership fee - to compete.

"We made every effort to raise the money we needed," said Major Jim Arrowood, Greater Baltimore commander of the Salvation Army. "But in the end, it just wasn't enough. We felt like we could serve the community better by closing it and focusing on other areas."

Arrowood said that sports equipment from the Highlandtown club will be packed up and moved to boys and girls clubs in the Franklin Square neighborhood of the city, Glen Burnie in Anne Arundel County, and Middle River in Baltimore County. He said money from the sale of the building, which is expected to go on the market soon, will also be distributed to other programs throughout the Baltimore area.

Trophies from sports tournaments now decades past will be carted off to the Salvation Army's Baltimore headquarters or to Camp Puh'tok, an overnight facility also run by the Salvation Army, in northern Baltimore County.

"It was an extremely difficult decision to close the club," said Lou Kousouris, chairman of the Salvation Army's local board and vice president of the Baltimore Orioles.

Kousouris, who played football at the club in the late 1950s, said he will never forget the man who ran the club's athletics program in its heyday: Utz Twardowitz.

Kousouris said Twardowitz was a stickler for playing by the rules and giving every boy, no matter how small or uncoordinated, a chance to play.

"Utz was the straw that stirred the drink," said Kousouris of Twardowitz, for whom a stadium was named at Patterson Park. "He was the guy who made us play the right way and made sure that everyone played. It was a wonderful time."

Pivec, who also played football at the club, said he took his adult sons on a tour of his old neighborhood about a year ago and made sure to show them the boys and girls club. Pivec, who played for the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Broncos, said the club helped him and other boys stay out of trouble, but also taught them important life lessons.

"There is a group of guys that was tremendously successful because of that experience," said Pivec, who owns Pivec Advertising. "They learned discipline and teamwork and organization, and carried that through to go further in school and then college and then into business."

At the club yesterday, staff members almost outnumbered children. Four boys, ages 10 to 13, showed up about 3 p.m. to watch television, play some hoops and eat pizza. They said most of their friends stayed away because they thought the club had already closed.

Asked why he comes to the club, Alex Nishchuk, 13, said: "It's better than running around the street." Asked what he and his friends will do now, he said: "Ride our bikes in the street."

Staff members Joyce Arrington, Alphonso Hawes and Collins Phillips said they will find jobs elsewhere, Arrington and Hawes at other boys and girls clubs. They said they were sorry to see the club close, but added that a drop in membership and recent departure of the only family with children on the block had foreshadowed the end.

"There's no children on this block anymore, and that's the story for the neighborhood," said Hawes, who served as the club's unit director. "I'm sure this place will sell quickly. It'll probably be cut up into condos."

Kousouris said there is talk of building a new club near Patterson Park, but the Salvation Army must raise about $10 million to launch the project. "If we can find the right piece of ground, we could build a state-of-the-art facility," he said.

Still, a new club would never replace the old one on South Clinton Street, not in the hearts and minds of those who say their lives were shaped by it.

"What a tragedy," said Venetoulis. "At least someone should have said something. We would have had a little champagne or something. You can't get too sentimental about it because it really was a great institution. I can't tell you how many kids grew up there."

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