Story of a priest, a dentist, a BMW

The Baltimore Sun

Did you hear the one about the priest and the dentist who go to Africa? They meet a doctor who runs a little hospital. The doctor asks the priest and the dentist for help. They agree. What happens? The dentist wins a Republican primary and the priest gets a BMW from a locksmith in Randallstown.


OK, not much of a joke there.

But it wasn't meant to be. This is something that really happened, and it's all good, as you'll see in a moment. First, some background.

The story begins last summer. The Rev. Jack Lombardi, chaplain of the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes in Emmitsburg organizes a trip to Africa for a group of Catholic pilgrims. There are 16 on the trip, including Mike Hargadon, a dentist with offices in Eldersburg and Emmitsburg. (Hargadon also happens to be a "Ron Paul Republican" candidate for Congress in Maryland's 7th District.)

The 17-day trip to Africa has three purposes - spirituality, service and safari. "To see the face of God in another land," is how Father Jack puts it.

The group goes to South Africa in August. The nine adults and seven teenagers serve with Mother Teresa's missionaries among orphans, the handicapped and AIDS victims. They visit a day care center and play with children.

They go to Tanzania. They visit a center for the disabled, a school for the deaf and a children's home. In a place called Arusha, they land at St. Elizabeth Hospital.

The hospital is modest, with only a few examination rooms, an operating room, no X-ray device and a small, overworked staff.

"There was a long line of people waiting to get inside the hospital," Father Jack says. "The heroic-ness of the head of the hospital, Dr. Kway, and his staff was inspiring."

Hargadon brings implements so he can provide dental work, and he ends up pulling a few teeth. "All the people we met, they're so poor, but they were always so very nice and welcoming, and very spiritual," he says.

While at St. Elizabeth's, Father Jack and Hargadon ask Dr. Kway - who practices under a single name - what he needs most.

"An ambulance," the doctor says. The 33-year-old hospital, serving a population of 350,000 in and around Arusha, has never had a vehicle, much less one with room for a gurney, oxygen and intravenous equipment.

When St. Elizabeth's receives patients with serious conditions - the many suffering from AIDS, for instance - they are referred to a second hospital 100 kilometers away. They get there by car or truck over rough terrain. Father Jack, Hargadon and the others in the group start thinking and talking, talking and thinking, and they come up with this idea: Let's go back to Maryland and raise $65,000 for an ambulance for St. Elizabeth's.

And that's what they do.

They publish and sell two calendars of photographs from their trip. They spread the word. They get a Web site, with a profile of the hospital and a description of its needs. Donations start coming.

One day, Father Jack mentions all this to Carroll Kohler, an acquaintance and, like Hargadon, a member of Holy Family parish in Randallstown. Kohler is a locksmith by trade and a car restorer by night. He lives and breathes car restorations, and has for years. Kohler's pride of late has been a black 1976 BMW, Model 2002.

This was the BMW of the pre-ubiquitous BMW era - that boxy, classic thing that used to draw a lot of attention on U.S. streets.

Kohler bought the BMW from its second owner in 1994. At the time, the car had been stored in a garage for 13 years. It had 129,445 miles. Kohler started the restoration in spring 1995. He rebuilt the engine and the transmission. He fixed the rusty wheel arches. He replaced the clutch, the drive shaft, a lot of the chrome, the door handles, the windshield, the master cylinder and too many other things to mention in this space. He installed a stereo system with something unavailable in 1976: a CD player. He painted the car and, after allowing the paint to cure for two months, polished it.

The job took Kohler more than four years. He planned to sell the car one day.

Instead, he decided to give it to Father Jack for St. Elizabeth's.

So they're raffling Kohler's restored BMW - his black beauty, his baby - to buy an ambulance for a hospital in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Of course, everyone involved with this project thinks Kohler's generosity is remarkable.

"I don't have a high need to keep [the BMW] or parade it up the pike," Kohler says of his decision. "I thought about it for a day or so, and decided, 'Let's raffle it off.' ... She's completely rebuilt. She's race-ready, if you wanna take her to the track."

The raffle rickets are $30 each, in a limited number - 2,002. The drawing is Aug. 15. Information can be found at www.sehafund .org.

And that's the story. As I said, all good.

Oh, and Mike Hargadon won the Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in February with about 10,000 votes. This November, he'll face the Democratic incumbent, Elijah Cummings, who took 92,000 votes in the primary. "I didn't want Elijah to be unopposed again," Hargadon says.

That's admirable and appreciated - taking the challenger's role like that. But if I were Hargadon, looking for something with better odds, I'd take a chance on the Beamer. Badda-bing!

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.


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