Richard W. Story once spent 20 hours in front of a mirror over a span of several days, but not to admire his anchorman-worthy hair. Instead, he was practicing the pronunciation of 500 words for the first Howard County Spelling Bee.
Still, he ended up adding an extra "er" to "embroider," and the unsuspecting student speller was eliminated from the contest by the judge, he said. The girl was quickly reinstated, though, for correctly spelling the incorrect word he'd given her, he added.
But after he mispronounced "tilde," which is an accent placed over the letter "n" in the Spanish language, as "tilled" instead of "til-duh" -- a gaffe that stumped all the students -- he said library director Valerie Gross later told him he was "being promoted" from pronouncer to emcee.
"That really was OK with me," said Story, chief executive officer of the county's Economic Development Authority. "It is my job to be the face of my organization, and hosting an event that stresses literacy is a great way to be seen."
Story, 62, held jobs in economic development in Carroll and Baltimore counties before becoming head of HCEDA in 1993. While he has called Reisterstown home for 18 years, he swiftly added, "I sleep there, but I live here" in Howard County.
With a personal calendar packed with events such as emceeing Saturday's Howard County Heart Ball for the American Heart Association and Wednesday's American Success Awards for the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, Story is seen at many local events. But he is, technically, better known for being heard.
"I have an instrument that none of my colleagues has," he said, referring to his speaking voice. "If I can use that to my advantage, I will."
Story, who served as news director of WTTR radio in Westminster throughout the 1970s, said he is often referred to as "The Voice of Howard County" for his frequent emcee and voice-over work. But others say he is heard -- and, more important, listened to -- by business owners.
"Because of Dick, businesses are disproportionately choosing to locate in Howard County -- and not just because of its centrality within the state," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic consulting firm in Baltimore.
"As an economist, I try to be as objective as possible," Basu continued. "When I say he is widely credited with creating a positive view of the county, I am not exaggerating."
Story said HCEDA stopped comparing Howard County withother counties in the metropolitan area because "it just wasn't fun anymore," and instead initiated, in its five-year strategic plan of 2006, a comparison with 20 successful jurisdictions across the country, picked for their similarities to Howard.
"We examine these jurisdictions, such as Somerset County, N.J. ... and ask, 'What makes this place so successful?' We consider stealing their best practices, but often we discover that we compare favorably."
The county's success on the business front reflects on Story, making him "one of the most effective economic development officers in the state," said Ted Venetoulis, who was Baltimore County executive from 1974 to 1978 and worked with him then. "He is somewhat of a legend, really."
Venetoulis, chairman of Corridor Media Inc., said he also attributes some of his long-time friend's success to his "colorful one-liners."
Basu agreed, saying, "Aside from Dick's stellar performance in economic development, he is also known for his height [6-feet-2] and his sizable sense of humor."
That quick-wittedness gives him a decided edge when talking business, Story said, but it also lands him unusual work on occasion. He has been commentator for Cow Plop Bingo since it began five years ago in Betterton, the small Kent County town where he and his wife grew up, and has emceed the annual Betterton Days for 25 years.
The game involves leasing 2-foot-by-2-foot squares of pasture to players who "wait for Mother Nature and gravity to confer at the south end of a northbound cow," he explained, and once the roughage-stuffed bovine "makes its move," spotters determine a winner who gets a cash prize.
His agenda is so regularly crammed that his wife of 40 years, Virginia Ann Clark Story, long ago decided to fill some of her evenings by teaching night classes in human resources disciplines at two area colleges, he said.
Aside from his appearances on behalf of HCEDA, he sits on the boards or committees of a dozen organizations, including the Columbia Foundation, Howard Community College, and the Maryland Economic Development Association, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2006.
He said he and his wife often communicate via sticky notes on their refrigerator and must plan dates to make enough quality time for each other.
The couple have two children and three grandchildren: a daughter, Karen Cherry, who lives in Bel Air with husband Stephen and their daughters, Ryann Marchetti, 12, and Ella Cherry, 17 months; and a son, Jeffery Story, who lives in Owings Mills with wife Lauren and their son, Nathan, 19 months.
He and Virginia host the entire brood every Sunday for dinner -- she cooks and he assists, he said -- a get-together he said he always looks forward to.
In the spare time that he said he doesn't really have, one of his hobbies is HO scale model railroading. But he said he hasn't had enough time, for nearly a year, to devote to tinkering with the 16-foot-by-16-foot layout in the basement.
He also collects golf balls emblazoned with logos of county businesses and organizations, beer steins, stamps, and coins -- all pastimes he said he values as "mindless escapes" from his hectic schedule.
"What drives me on the job is the competitive nature of my work, which is focused on winning investment decisions for our community," Story said.
"Investment in the quality of life here starts with businesses, which shore up the tax base," he added. "In economic development, the measure of my worth is whether I am creating jobs and whether people are benefiting from my efforts. The barometer against which I measure success is this: Have I helped improve the human condition?"
The short answer to that is he believes he has. While stating that the county is not immune to the current national economic downturn, he added, "Howard County is slower going into a recession and faster coming out of one," due in part to the number of companies here that support the federal government.
"We have an economic development plan and we're following it," Story said. "Nobody has ever repealed the old bromide, 'Location, location, location,' and Howard County has that covered."