It takes Kurt Wenzing the good part of an hour to get from his home in Carroll County to Calvin Ash’s house in Wilson Park on the north side of Baltimore. He makes the trip at least once a week, sometimes twice, to check up on Ash, to see what he needs and to do some chores.
He does this, he says, to make up for the way the state of Maryland treated his new friend.
“Because of the way two Democratic governors treated him,” Wenzing says. “And I’m a Democrat.”
It’s a long story, reported in this space a few times over the last decade. I’ll summarize: Calvin Ash spent 47 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 21, a hospital kitchen worker and the father of a 2-year-old boy: He shot and killed a man who was seeing his estranged wife. Ash confessed to police. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.
After 32 years, the Maryland Parole Commission recommended that Ash be released. But the governor at the time, Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, refused to let that happen. He and an earlier Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, had rejected parole for inmates serving life sentences, a position that Glendening later disavowed as tough-on-crime politics.
Several years after that, the commission reconsidered Ash’s case and voted 8-0 for his release. But five more years would go by before Ash finally caught a break from a different governor.
Last April, Larry Hogan, a Republican, commuted his sentence. The 68-year-old Ash came out of prison in July, some 15 years after the parole commission had originally recommended his release.
He had $300, mostly money his brother, Julian, had sent during his incarceration. Julian, who lives in Oklahoma, arranged for Calvin to live in their late mother’s home in Wilson Park, a two-story rowhouse more than 100 years old and in need of work, including a roof repair.
Enter Kurt Wenzing, a 79-year-old retired Social Security employee who lives in Westminster.
Julian Ash first mentioned him in an email to me in November: “Mr. Kurt Wenzing has been an absolute blessing! He’s helped with painting the inside walls, fixing furniture and grooming the exterior. He takes Calvin to some appointments. He also brought a contractor who has done some emergency work for us at a price we were able to work with, so we have been Blessed!”
On Wednesday, I found Wenzing in the Ash house. He wore a T-shirt with an amusing expression — “Better To Have Wrestled And Lost Than To Have Played Basketball” — and paint-splattered jeans. He had just finished painting door trim in the kitchen.
He had earlier painted the walls in the living room and dining room. He replaced some ceiling tiles, too. He made an $800 loan for the roof repair that the Ashes have since paid back. “My wife is starting to complain that I’m spending more time working on Cal’s house than my own,” Wenzing said.
How did this stranger from Carroll County become a helpful friend of an ex-inmate in Baltimore?
Wenzing read accounts of Ash’s predicament in The Sun and found it outrageous that he had been imprisoned 15 years longer than the parole commission felt necessary.
He figured that, after 47 years in prison, Ash had a difficult transition to make, and Wenzing held no expectations that the state would provide assistance. “I’m doing this because they’re not helping him,” Wenzing says. “I felt the state owed him, and I wanted to help because I knew they wouldn’t. And I’m a Democrat, and I’m telling you, it made me so mad.”
Wenzing fixed parts of the old wooden porch.
“The front looked bad,” Ash said.
“I cleaned up the lawn some,” Wenzing said. “It looks as good as all his neighbors’ now.”
While the three of us were talking about this, Calvin Ash’s 50-year-old son, Calvin Ash Jr., walked in with grocery bags in his hands and some stark reality on his mind: “I spent half my life — well, my life — without a father.”
The room fell quiet.
When he was just a boy of nine, Calvin Jr. expected that his father would be out of prison by the time he was a teenager. It’s what the father told the son during a prison visit.
That false hope came in a letter from the senior Ash’s sentencing judge. “The judge wrote me back when I wrote him, and he said, ‘Look, you do all right, you’ll be out in 15 years,’” Ash said.
“And to a child 9 years old that was like a promise,” Calvin Jr. said. “And then I got guys saying, ‘He ain’t never getting out.’ And I’m not believing people on the street, I’m believing my father.”
But it was an unrealistic expectation. Almost five full decades passed before the father came home and settled into his new life.
He gets some disability benefits and some food stamps each month. But the January water bill shocked him, and he worries about utility costs once a grant he received to cover some of them runs out. The house needs more repairs, and there’s the property tax bill.
“I’d like to get just a little part-time job,” Calvin Ash said.