Businesspeople from Columbia's early days recall a community with a small-town feel

The Baltimore Sun

Columbia's 40th birthday celebration is officially under way amid predictions of a bright future, but John Keppler Lea's thoughts often drift to a friendlier, small-town past.

Lea, 74, has lived in the town that James W. Rouse planned since 1968, and a decade later left his University of Maryland, College Park teaching job to open a neighborhood pub called "J.K's" in Wilde Lake Village Center, Columbia's oldest.

Back then, Columbia was a small town where everyone knew each other, and new single-family Ryland homes sold for $19,000. Having the pub was fun, said Lea, a friendly man with a hearty laugh.

"It was like inviting people into your home. It was Cheers, before Cheers was Cheers," he said, referring to the hit television comedy about a Boston bar.

Lea spoke before a luncheon for more than 450 people Wednesday in the Spear Center ballroom overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi in the white, former Rouse Co. headquarters building where countless residents danced and drank in years past.

Before lunch, a blue, star-adorned flag was raised on the Lake Kittamaqundi dock to signal the official start of the birthday celebration that will end July 15.

Douglas Godine, a former Rouse Co. official who now is a vice president of General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago company that bought Rouse, introduced County Executive Ken Ulman, who was born in the new town 33 years ago, as "a true child of Columbia."

Ulman said the town still honors those original "values of acceptance, diversity and opportunity."

A bit later, Lea reminisced.

"I'm a small-town boy who knew the town the way it was," he recalled.

Lea was one of four people central to business in Columbia at its inception who talked about those early years on a stage after lunch, before a crowd invited by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. Slides of people and places from years gone by flashed on the wall as they talk.

The others were Karen Everhart, a real estate agent who moved to Columbia from Tucson, Ariz., in June 1967; Ron Schimel, who came in 1973 to join the Rouse Co.'s legal team; and Maurice Simpkins, a former Ryland Homes executive who arrived in 1969.

Everhart recalled the neighborhood parties.

"We had bonfires, dancing and drinks," she said. "It was a very special time. It was so small, you knew everyone."

Schimel said only 50 lawyers were in the county when he arrived, compared with 450 now. Rouse's ability to talk the president of Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. into underwriting Columbia's development symbolizes the kind of personal touch and sealed-with-a-handshake deals common then.

"Fundamentally, it was a business based on relationships," he said.

Simpkins said he paid $11,500 for his first townhouse and sold Ryland's first detached models for $19,000.

"Those days were the beginning of lots of opportunities in housing," he said.

Everhart recalled how crowds would line up and camp for weeks to place a deposit on a new, unadvertised Howard Homes townhouse, even before they were built.

Lea told about how a few neighbors in Longfellow decided to have a July 4 softball game and beer fest, and how that grew into the neighborhood's still practiced old-time holiday parade featuring kids on decorated bicycles, candy for all and first-prize awards for everyone.

Now, that early familiarity and spirit have changed, though Everhart said she is looking forward to the coming redevelopment of Columbia's central core.

"People want to see the downtown turn into a city where you can walk around," she said. "We've come a long way."

"I see a bright future," Simpkins said.

But Lea, who also owned the Last Chance Saloon in Oakland Mills (now the Fire Rock Grill) and retired in 1994, said the changes have not been all good. Those personal relationships have given way to cold business decisions that lack the old magic, he said.

"In the early days, with the leasing people, there were lots of eccentrics and some crazy things went on," he said. "It was really rather interesting. Now we have the situation where suits are dealing with suits and everyone is farther from the product. I worry a lot about it, but it is a trend that I think is irreversible."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who spoke after the pioneers had finished their discussion, praised Columbia in concept and practice.

"James Rouse understood the highest of human dreams and aspirations," O'Malley said. "Columbia was one of the very first suburban developments to market itself as open to African-Americans."

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