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James W. Hamilton Sr., whose iconic Bel Air bakery was a community hub for 60 years, dies

Jim Hamilton’s bakery in Bel Air was always a popular place for a glazed doughnut, peach turnover, birthday cake or a cup of coffee.

But perhaps more famous was its back room, where loyal customers gathered over some 60 years to eat and drink — and kibitz over current events and problems of the world.

“All Harford County and Bel Air business was solved in that back room,” said former WAMD-AM-97 radio disc jockey “Captain” Jim McMahan, a three-term Harford County councilman.

“Jim poured the coffee and if someone grabbed a glazed doughnut, he’d say good naturedly, ‘Did you pay for that?’” said Mr. McMahan, a Bel Air resident, with a laugh.

Mr. Hamilton, who held court at the bakery, died Saturday from a heart attack at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center. The longtime Churchville resident was 82.

“His bakery in the early morning was a stop for all the bigwigs in the county to catch up on the news, politics and whose wife left whom. It was the end spot to be,” said Todd Holden, a Forest Hill resident who retired from The Aegis as a reporter and photographer.

“That place meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Maryann Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County. “Its back room was where all the characters went to chew the fat.”

Harford Circuit Judge William O. Carr, a longtime customer, called the bakery “an institution” of Bel Air, and said: “It was a fun place. Jimmy was always teasing the customers. He was well-thought of as a gracious host and was just a great fellow.”

James Warren Hamilton Sr. may have had flour in his DNA. He was the son of Warren Hamilton, a Rice’s Bakery driver, and his wife, Dorothy Plummer Loux, a baker. He was born in Churchville and raised in Aberdeen.

In 1949, his mother established the Aberdeen Bakery on Main Street, and he worked there as a dishwasher at age 12. After graduating from Aberdeen High School in 1954, he served for a year in the Army as a cook stationed in El Paso, Texas.

After being discharged from the Army in 1955, Mr. Hamilton returned to the bakery, which eventually lost its lease and moved to North Bond Street in Bel Air, where he was joined in its operation by his wife, the former Rose Vincenti, and his mother.

“It’s kind of a funny story. When they moved to Bel Air, they still called it the Aberdeen Bakery, and one day, they had a fire in the oven,” said his son, James W. “Jimmy” Hamilton Jr., of Churchville, who worked in the bakery with his father for 30 years. “Well, the fire department was driving all over Aberdeen looking for a bakery fire, so that’s when they decided they better change its name to the Bel Air Bakery.”

In those days, in addition to baked goods, they served breakfast, lunch and dinner, but “we stopped that in the late ‘50s and we just did baked goods,” Mr. Hamilton said.

When they opened the bakery, doughnuts sold for a nickel and the first day’s receipts totaled $29, family members said. At its closing in 2015, the cost of a doughnut had risen to 80 cents.

Mr. Hamilton put in long days, often arriving at 2 a.m. to begin baking the doughnuts, pies, cakes, peach cakes (in season), wedding cakes, cookies, cupcakes and other baked goods.

“I always liked the fried peach turnovers. They were so good, as were the doughnuts. It was the place that everyone went for a birthday cake,” Ms. Skowronski said.

By 8 a.m., with customers filling the store, Mr. Hamilton would retreat to the back of the bakery, next to a coffee percolator, where he picked up a wall phone to take a call Wednesday through Fridays mornings from Mr. McMahan’s radio show. The two men would have a spirited discussion of current events and arrive at solutions to all of the ills of the world.

“They’d spend at least five minutes on the air together, frequently longer, chatting about who is sitting at the counter, what is coming out of the oven and giggling like kids,” reported The Sun in a 1993 article. The feature was part of the popular “Bob and Jim Morning Show,” that also featured the late Bob Callahan.

“His handle was ‘Jimmy the Danish,’ and we’d do the show without a script. He was a natural comedian and a natural character,” Mr. McMahan said. “He got the double entendres — never off color — and was good at picking up on things.”

“Despite its humble appearance, the back room at the Bel Air Bakery on Bond Street is the coffee spot of choice for the town’s chief of police, the mayor, trash collectors, computer technicians, the unemployed, attorneys, surgeons, the county sheriff and people who sell balloons for a living,” reported The Baltimore Sun in 1993.

The back room had “just enough space for a counter, stools and a half-dozen small tables. Here, real and imagined decision-makers launch military coups, leveraged buyouts and rescue operations with the wisdom and confidence afforded by a comfortable chair, hot coffee and a few sugar twists,” observed the newspaper.

In addition to running his bakery, Mr. Hamilton encouraged news businesses to participate in the revitalization of Bond Street. He was a strong supporter of the community, its various organizations and the needy.

For years, he and his family adopted a family at Christmas referred by the county social services office, and urged customers to also help those in need celebrate the holiday.

“He gave incredible support to the Bel Air community for years and never turned anyone away. I’d go in and he’d say, ‘Do I look like the Salvation Army? Do you see a red shield on the wall? What do you want?’ — and then he’d double what I wanted him to give,” Mr. McMahan said.

“He did it without fanfare, and all the people Jim and Rose helped over the years could fill Ripken Stadium,” he said. “They touched so many lives.”

In 2015, the Hamilton family made the decision to close the bakery on Christmas Eve, and posted on Facebook that they were “just retiring — plain and simple.”

Mr. Hamilton told a WBAL-TV reporter at the time that his retirement plans included “going home and drink coffee.”

Ms. Skowronski recalled asking the Hamiltons if they would consider donating the bakery’s sign that had welcomed customers for decades to the historical society.

“I told Miss Rose that the society wanted the sign as a memento from the bakery and she started to cry,” she said. “It was a white sign with big red letters. One day in the following spring, a car pulled up and it was the Hamiltons who began pulling the sign out of the car.”

For years, Mr. Hamilton’ and his wife’s Churchville home was a seasonal destination.

“Jim had so many lights on his house and his Christmas display it caused a traffic jam on Route 22,” Mr. McMahan said.

“My father never had time for hobbies because he was working from 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., seven days a week. [He] eventually cut back to six days,” his son said. “He put in long hours. If he had a hobby, it would be travel.”

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the McComas Funeral Home, 50 W. Broadway, Bel Air.

In addition to his wife of 63 years and son, Mr. Hamilton is survived by two sisters, Patricia Potter of Bel Air and Donna Jean Scotten of Delta, Pa.; and two grandchildren.

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