2001: Stephen Henderson, The Sun, Baltimore
1/28/2001
ASNE Staff
Award for Editorial Writing
Sunday, January 28, 2001
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Editorial writing


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O'Malley's pettiness shines through again

Thinking small: Mayor uses school board appointments to pursue personal politics

Jan. 5, 2000

NOW comes Martin O’Malley, taking his place in the pitiful queue of Baltimore mayors who have thought small and acted smaller with regard to city schools.

Mr. O'Malley has wasted no time using his school board appointive power to exact petty political revenge. He booted board member Edward J. Brody last week — basically because Mr. Brody worked vigorously on the mayoral campaign of Carl Stokes, one of Mr. O’Malley’s chief rivals.

It wasn’t possible to work with Mr. Brody, Mr. O’Malley said. Too much political history. Too many bad feelings.

Huh? Are we back in third grade on the playground?

Some advice for His Honor: Grow up. There’s a reason they don’t let kids be mayors.

The mayor’s action might be more defensible if Mr. Brody were a slouch on the board. He’s not.

On a board where everyone boasts some expertise and shoulders the work of five people (pro bono), Mr. Brody is a standout.

Mr. Brody, founder of one of the city’s largest trucking companies, brings a business sense to school matters. He engineered many of the labor negotiations that yielded concessions from city teachers. He led the search for the schools’ chief executive.

It wasn’t uncommon for Mr. Brody — like other members — to spend upward of 30 hours a week working on school matters. Even if Mr. O’Malley finds an executive with Mr. Brody’s experience to replace him, how likely is he to unearth one who will give so freely of his or her time

Mr. O'Malley made his tantrum even more juvenile by leveling absurd accusations that Mr. Brody had something to do with literature on zero tolerance that called him a racist during the campaign.

Of course, Mr. O’Malley offers no proof. But on the playground, who needs proof? The bully always gets his way.

This isn’t the first time Mr. O’Malley has shown himself to be more petulant than mayoral. He offered departing police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier a foot in the rear on his way out. And as a member of the City Council, he built a reputation for making sure his “enemies” got what he thought was coming to them. The school system doesn’t need a mayor like that. Neither does the rest of the city. If Mr. O’Malley can’t see past political vendettas and act in the best interests of the people and institutions that can help save Baltimore, we’re in for a rocky administration.

Copyright © 2000, The Baltimore Sun


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Taking over Baltimore schools

Reform: Privatizing the worst ones is a good idea, but results will depend on state vigilance

Feb. 3, 2000

IT’S NOT the children. It never was.

Years of low test scores, hopelessness and frustration in Baltimore’s public schools aren’t the product of defective or dumb kids. They’re about principals and teachers who don’t do their jobs, and a system that has repeatedly adopted and ditched curricula. They’re the fruit of a community that has woven a pitiful tapestry of excuses for its refusal to gird and nurture public education.

It's not the children who are failing; it’s everyone else.

So getting everyone else out of the way to “reconstitute” the three worst city elementary schools makes sense. Drastic as it may seem to clean house and turn these schools over to private companies, the State Board of Education had no obvious alternatives.

The three schools that will be re-made — Furman L. Templeton, Montebello and Gilmore elementaries — have been on the state’s list of low performers for four years. They’ve had a measure of help from the state’s reconstitution program and, more important, they’ve benefitted like every other city school from the system-wide reforms of the last three years.

But where are their test scores? No fifth-graders at Templeton posted satisfactory scores on the Maryland School Performance and Assessment tests last year, capping a three-year decline in that school’s scores. Only a handful of third- or fifth-graders at the other two schools met the standard.

No one should believe these schools haven’t had sufficient time to show improvement. And the state — already under fire for not making good on its threats to reconstitute persistently failing schools — had no more time to waste.

The trick will be to make sure that the three private interests that want to run these elementaries can actually deliver on their promises. Two of them — Edison and Mosaica Inc. — have decent track records running schools elsewhere. The third, Kennedy Krieger Institute, has only managed a special education school before.

No private operator should be let off a tight leash. Results — not excuses-- are what the state should accept from these companies.

It’s not the children who are failing. It never was. Now that state officials are taking responsibility for the three worst city schools, any future failures will be theirs.

Copyright © 2000, The Baltimore Sun


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A silence that kills

Action: Time for Baltimore residents to speak up about travesties in criminal justice

March 19, 2000

Keep quiet about the 4,000 recidivists who run city streets, committing crimes with increasing bravado and little fear of punishment. Keep quiet when probable murderers slap hands and embrace in court after they walk free.

Say nothing about a police department that can’t solve more than half the 300 city murders each year. Or homicide detectives who trash important evidence before trials. Or prosecutors and judges who can’t or won’t stop the delays that so often set criminals free.

Keep quiet, Baltimore, because you’ve got other things to think about. Like the upcoming baseball season. Or which weekends you’ll spend in Ocean City this summer.

Keep quiet if you will, but know that your silence and your lack of outrage over the pathetic state of this city’s criminal justice system make you an accomplice to the mayhem. Your silence kills.

These are your courts. They’re your cops. They’re your judges and your prosecutors. Until you stand up, tell them you’ve had enough and demand a system that works for citizens instead of criminals, the nonsense will continue.

Thugs will walk the streets undeterred — maybe in your neighborhood. They’ll rob and rape and kill — maybe they’ll do it to people you know. And the slow rot that’s eating at this city’s core will become a ravenous decay, leaving no neighborhood untouched, no life unscarred.

How much more will it take for the city to raise its collective voice in protest?

When will Baltimoreans shout, like the television anchor in the 1976 movie Network suggested: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

At The Sun, we’re already there. For more than a year, we’ve been writing (in editorials and news stories) about the continuing violence and how screwed up justice has become in Baltimore. We’ve pleaded with the governor, the mayor, the state’s attorney, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals and others to fix it.

We’ve advocated changes in the city prosecutor’s office, which is overworked and understaffed but also suffers from a lack of direction and an unacceptable level of incompetence.

We’ve pushed for reform at the city’s Central Booking and Intake Center, where the absence of a judge to hear bail reviews has helped to clog the system with frivolous cases.

We’ve asked city and state officials to shelve their turf squabbles in favor of a unified approach to curbing the city’s crime epidemic.

Some of what we’ve suggested has been enacted: The prosecutor’s office will get more attorneys, prosecutors took over charging of criminals from the police department and the police department’s rotation policy has ended, among other developments. A Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has been resurrected.

But much more has to be done. State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy still offers more excuses than answers or solutions to her office’s pitiful performance. Judges who make upwards of $103,000 (some as much as $110,000) a year still roll their eyes at the mere suggestion of weekend or holiday duty at the clogged Central Booking facility. And despite Mayor Martin O’Malley’s election on a platform of “zero-tolerance” of criminals, thugs still know that justice is a joke in Baltimore.

Just ask Jay Anderson, William Harrison and Stacey Wilson. That trio walked last week — for the second time — on charges they murdered Shawn L. Suggs in 1995.

The case against them seemed promising when it was filed five years ago, but what happened in the intervening time made it easy for the defendants to beat the charges.

Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys delayed the trial 12 times between 1995 and 1999, which violated the defendants’ right to speedy justice.  So in 1999, a Circuit Court judge threw out the charges.

An appellate court later reinstated the charges and ordered the defendants to stand trial. But by then one key witness was dead and another — a heroin addict — had changed her story. Moreover, homicide detectives admitted that they had destroyed key evidence against the defendants. (Just Friday, The Sun released details of a report on the homicide squad suggesting that lost evidence, incomplete case folders and other inexcusable dysfunctions may be the norm.)

Not surprisingly, a jury returned not-guilty verdicts for all three in the Suggs case, and they walked out of court free men. But is that justice? Did the process fairly serve either the defendants or the victim’s family?

These kinds of screw-ups should make Baltimore want to scream with anger and frustration. Judges’ and prosecutors’ phones should ring off the hooks and the mayor should be bombarded with complaints. But do you think that happened? Want to bet that it didn’t?

This week’s judicial miscarriage was only the latest example of what goes on every day in Baltimore, the most recent in a long line of debacles that allow criminals to do whatever they want and not fear reprisal. But there’s still no palpable outrage, no sense that city residents are gut-sick about what’s going on.

Something has to change. There must be a groundswell of public opinion that forces the important fixes we need in the criminal justice system. It would be no less important than was the civil rights struggle or the push for women’s suffrage at the beginning of the early 20th century.

Anyone can lead this movement. Mayor O’Malley has a perfect platform from which to do so. Gov. Parris Glendening — an influential two-term governor with fewer than two years left in office — also has a position of advantage.

But you, Baltimore, must do your part. Your anger and persistence could be the fuel that feeds this effort. Phone your leaders. Pressure them to change. Do something.

No one in this city can afford to keep quiet anymore.

Let them know

Call these people to demand change in Baltimore’s criminal justice system:
State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy 410-396-4996
Police Chief Ronald L. Daniel 410-396-2020
Chief District Court Judge Martha F. Rasin 410-260-1525

Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell (who heads the criminal docket) 410-396-5052
Mayor Martin O’Malley 410-396-4900
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening 410-974-3901

Copyright © 2000, The Baltimore Sun


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Capital case filled with doubt

Clearly, the state cannot put Eugene Colvin-el to death when such uncertainty remains.

June 4, 2000

NO EVIDENCE proves Eugene Colvin-el ever held the knife used to kill 82-year-old Lena Buckman at her daughter’s Pikesville residence 20 years ago.

No fingerprints matching Colvin-el’s were found in the room where Buckman was stabbed 28 times, in the bedroom ransacked after the murder or anywhere else in the house.

 But Colvin-el is sentenced to death because his prints were found on broken glass outside the home.

He is going to die because he pawned two watches that could have been found among jewelry strewn across the lawn.

He is a condemned man, awaiting execution at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, because he had a lawyer who put on no defense at trial, and because his appeals never adequately remedied that injustice.

Sometime during the week of June 12, state officials plan to strap Colvin-el to a gurney and fill his veins with drugs to stop his heart, making him the fourth Maryland prisoner executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

But to let him die would sanction the worst kind of premeditated killing.

The facts of Colvin-el’s case simply don’t lead to a moral certainty that he was Buckman’s principal murderer, or that he received the “especially vigilant” attention to due process that the Supreme Court expects in capital cases.

His case doesn’t meet the common-sense standard that death is reserved for the worst of the worst, convicted by the strongest evidence.

It’s not even close.

The moral arc of Colvin-el’s case bends toward injustice. It bends toward unfairness and a perilously low standard for state-sanctioned killings. Whether Colvin-el is “innocent” is not at issue. Whether the state has established his guilt as a killer with unwavering affirmation and probity is.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening — who has a petition for Colvin-el’s clemency awaiting his attention — must stop Maryland from passing final judgment on Colvin-el. He should commute his sentence to life in prison.

It’s thin.

Dig through the reams of paper that constitute Eugene Colvin-el’s 20-year case file, and this is the conclusion that jumps out regarding the prosecution’s case.

Overwhelmingly circumstantial, with a distressingly small amount of evidence to connect Colvin-el with the murder, the file makes for unsettling reading.

Prosecutors say most criminal trials turn largely on circumstantial evidence — though Colvin-el’s case sets a new low in that regard.

Prosecutors also say jurors were able to draw “reasonable inferences” from the evidence to conclude that Colvin-el wielded the knife. But those “inferences” seem more like great leaps.

The state says it happened like this:

On Sept. 9, 1980, between 1 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., Colvin-el broke into the house on Cherokee Drive in Pikesville where Lena Buckman was visiting her daughter, Marjorie Surrell, and her family.

They say he broke a pane of glass in an exterior basement door, entered and stabbed Buckman 28 times with a knife he found in the kitchen. He wiped his hands and the knife with a kitchen towel. Then he rummaged through the master bedroom and stole several thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry.

At trial in 1981, the prosecution presented evidence that fingerprints found on the broken glass near the basement door matched Colvin-el’s. Evidence was also presented that showed Colvin-el pawned two watches reported stolen from the Surrell home on Sept. 9.

The state’s case raised more doubts than it erased:

  • Investigators were unable to find any “comparison value” fingerprints (prints complete enough to use for identification) on the knife used to kill Buckman. Did Colvin-el handle it? Prosecutors could not say conclusively that he did. They asserted — without any supporting evidence — that the presence of the bloody towel proved Colvin-el wiped his prints off the knife.
     
  • Of the three comparison-quality fingerprints found inside the house — including a bloody partial palm print on the refrigerator — not one matched Colvin-el’s. Police found the broken glass with Colvin-el’s fingerprints outside the home.

    Was Colvin-el in the house or just at the scene? Prosecutors offered no conclusive evidence. Were there other people in the house at the time of the robbery and murder? The unidentified bloody palm print on the refrigerator suggests that’s possible.
     
  • In written reports, Baltimore County police investigators said the basement door Colvin-el used to gain access would only open “approximately four inches,” because a cabinet placed against the basement wall blocked part of the door.

    Colvin-el was approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall and 140 pounds at the time of the murder. Could he have slipped through such a small opening? Prosecutors did not offer conclusive evidence.

    They found no fingerprints on the door or on items in the basement. The cabinet that partially blocked the door had not been moved.
     
  • Pieces of jewelry were found on the driveway outside the Surrell home after the crime. Did Colvin-el obtain the watches he pawned from somewhere other than inside the home? The prosecution’s evidence did not rule out that possibility.

Colvin-el’s lawyer should have had an easy time challenging the evidence.

Even if he did not question the idea that Colvin-el was present at the scene, he had several avenues for assailing the prosecution’s assertion that Colvin-el murdered Buckman. Only that assertion made the defendant eligible for the death penalty under Maryland law.

Questioning this assertion was especially critical in a case that dealt with a crime in Baltimore County, where prosecutors seek death in any eligible case, regardless of the circumstances or the weight of the evidence.

So what went wrong?

Enter the shortcomings of the legal system.

Let’s start with Colvin-el’s first lawyer, Robert W. Payne, a private-practice attorney appointed by the public defender’s office to represent Colvin-el at trial in 1981. Payne, who is now deceased, had handled only two murder cases before being assigned Colvin-el’s case. He had never dealt with a death-penalty defense.

Baltimore County prosecutors and Colvin-el’s current attorneys have different views about how well Payne represented Colvin-el. But certain things are clear in the court records.

Payne did very little pretrial preparation because he was “frustrated” by Colvin-el’s refusal to cooperate. Colvin-el wouldn’t allow Payne to put on the case he wanted, according to Payne’s testimony in a 1985 post-conviction hearing. He wouldn’t answer Payne’s questions or respond to his requests.

In turn, Payne didn’t inspect the prosecution’s evidence until a month before trial. He didn’t interview any witnesses Colvin-el asked him to interview, including at least one who Colvin-el said might offer an alibi.

Colvin-el himself entered pretrial motions, including one at the case’s first hearing that got the trial moved from Baltimore County to Anne Arundel County.

At the same hearing, he filed a motion for a change of attorney; Payne concurred with an oral motion to remove himself from the case.

Both said Colvin-el was dissatisfied with Payne’s work and that, because this was a death-penalty case, attorney and client needed a close working relationship. These motions were denied. The judge said there was insufficient cause to change attorneys.

Payne’s poor preparation hobbled his performance at trial. He called no witnesses and introduced no evidence.

He put no questions to prosecution witnesses that exposed the lack of identifiable fingerprints on the knife or the absence of Colvin-el’s fingerprints inside the house.

The trial lasted two days. The jury deliberated three hours and returned a guilty verdict.

At sentencing, the jury was asked to answer two questions: whether Colvin-el was the “principal” in the murder — the knife-wielder — and whether his crimes warranted death.

Lacking strong evidence, prosecutors attempted to prove Colvin-el was the knife-wielder by detailing his past convictions. Especially damaging was testimony about an eerily similar 1972 robbery incident, during which he threatened a woman with a knife while stealing jewelry from her home.

On the witness stand, Colvin-el testified that he was a drug addict who committed burglaries for money for his wife and two children. He said he never hurt anyone and offered wandering statements about everything from his faith to the prosecutor’s nationality.

The entire sentencing phase lasted less than a day. By sundown, the jurors had deliberated again and returned a sentence of death.

In all of Colvin-el’s appeals, his lawyers have focused — with good reason — on the inadequacy of his representation at trial and the grave doubts about Colvin-el’s role in the murder. Those are the primary issues that make his planned execution indefensible.

Five judges in three proceedings found these problems significant enough to lodge serious objections to Colvin-el’s execution. But the courts never saw fit to remedy either problem with a new trial: in essence, to start again from the beginning, presuming Colvin-el’s innocence and introducing all of the evidence before deciding his guilt.

The closest he came was in 1992, when he was granted a resentencing after the Supreme Court found fault with Maryland’s death penalty procedure. However, at the hearing, his guilt in a felony murder was not the issue. This was not a new trial, although it is often inaccurately referred to that way.

Even worse, problems arose at the resentencing over how evidence was presented.

Jurors first were supposed to decide if Colvin-el was the “principal” in the Buckman murder. If they found he was the killer, only then could they decide his punishment.

But the prosecution presented evidence for both questions at the same time.  Thus, jurors heard damaging testimony about Colvin-el that they weren’t supposed to hear unless they decided he was the principal killer.

The prosecutor talked about Colvin-el’s prior convictions in his opening statement. Yet those records had nothing to do with establishing what did or did not happen on Sept. 9, 1980.

After opening statements, the prosecutor called Buckman’s relatives to the stand and had them talk about the impact of her death on their lives. None of that evidence could be used by the jury to ascertain Colvin-el’s role in the killing.

The judge told the jurors to disregard statements about Colvin-el’s record and from the relatives in deciding if he was the primary murderer. The judge instructed them to stick to the prosecution’s evidence against Colvin-el, as required by law.

But that’s like telling someone to forget an elephant in the room and concentrate on a mouse instead. It was unreasonable.

A federal district judge said as much when he ruled that the resentencing violated Colvin-el’s constitutional rights. But even he didn’t find legal grounds to grant a new trial. He only ordered another sentencing hearing that separated the two questions and the evidence the jury heard.

His ruling was overturned by the federal Court of Appeals in Richmond, which determined that Maryland law didn’t require separation of the proceedings. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

Prosecutors say they have met the legal standard for execution. They say Colvin-el has had his day in court, and has been condemned by two juries. His appeals were rejected on the basis of the laws of this state and this country.

But do technical legal judgments assure that “especially vigilant” attention to due process and fairness was given? Do they assure that Colvin-el actually did what he is accused of doing?

No.

Governor Glendening, with whom Colvin-el’s fate now rests, has an obligation to look beyond legal arguments to moral issues: Can the state end his life while serious doubts remain about his role in the murder and the fairness of his trials?

This process must be stopped before the state imposes the ultimate — and irreversible — penalty on Eugene Colvin-el.

Copyright © 2000, The Baltimore Sun


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Bill Struever, Marylander of Year

Development: His efforts to revitalize old buildings are reviving neighborhoods and entire city.

Dec. 17, 2000

FOUR WALLS and a foundation are all he needs.

Carl William Struever (everyone calls him Bill) adopts buildings that others have discarded, neglected or marked for destruction. He sees what they want to be, what purpose these abandoned hulks might serve in the communities that surround them. And with single-minded resolve, he helps them fulfill that potential.

You can spot Mr. Struever’s work all around Baltimore — almost anywhere an old warehouse or industrial plant is thriving as a home or an office, a bookstore or a restaurant.

And if you take a step back, you can see his impact. By restoring hope to buildings that everyone else has given up on, he’s also helping to restore hope to a city that many people have forsaken.

This year, Mr. Struever’s plans to create a “Digital Harbor” started to pay off, bringing high-tech jobs to both sides of Baltimore’s harbor, from the American Can Co. in Canton to the newly restored Tide Point, site of the old Procter & Gamble plant.

His achievement has significant implications for Baltimore’s waterfront, and by extension, the city. And it is the primary reason we’ve chosen Mr. Struever, 48, as our Marylander of the Year.

It might be easy to view Mr. Struever as just another of Baltimore’s many developers — a rich guy who makes himself richer by putting up office complexes, stores or housing units.

But that view understates the development challenges Mr. Struever and his partners at Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse confront without blinking, and the gambles they take in the name of urban revitalization. What they do is all about risks. It’s about fighting through setbacks, headaches and environmental and financial constraints to make something work where others have failed.

Anyone can put up an office building on a pristine patch of open land in the suburbs. Not just anyone can bring life to rejected urban relics.

The American Can Co. in Canton is a good example.

It sat unused for nearly three decades and was slated for demolition twice before Mr. Struever got involved.

The site was polluted with lead and oil. The buildings had odd footprints that didn’t lend themselves cleanly to modern needs for office space or commercial ventures.

But Mr. Struever saw possibilities. Taking care of the pollution was just a matter of patience and money. And he knew if he could secure historic tax credits for the property — again, with patience and money — he could make the numbers work.

Design was a matter of vision: finding virtue in concrete industrial-grade columns and old shop-floor layouts. Retail outlets and restaurants quickly bought in. Mr. Struever got office tenants by targeting high-tech companies whose employees might appreciate the site’s quirkiness. (He also persuaded DAP, an old-line caulk company looking to jazz-up its image, to move in.)

When the Can Co. opened in 1998, it was a rousing success. It has since become an anchor for Canton and helped produce a thriving real estate and commercial market in the neighborhood. Across the harbor at Tide Point is Mr. Struever’s newest effort. The abandoned Procter & Gamble plant had been bought by Korean investors who planned to make sake there, but their financing fell through, and Mr. Struever stepped in.

After conquering similar challenges to those he faced at the Can Co., Mr. Struever has turned the 400,000-square-foot complex into the centerpiece of his Digital Harbor venture.

He has already attracted some big-name dot.coms to inhabit the office spaces. And he has some non-technology tenants, too: architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross and ad agency Gray Kirk/VanSant will soon move in. When Tide Point is finished, about 2,200 people will work there. In its heyday, Procter & Gamble never had more than 550 workers at that site.

There’s little doubt the Can Co. and Tide Point would be empty or demolished if Mr. Struever had not revived them. The risks were too great for others, and the vision wouldn’t have been there for many.

The communities these developments serve — Canton and Locust Point — might still be groping for ways to turn a neighborhood drag into a catalyst if not for Mr. Struever.

The same is true of other Struever developments: the old Bagby Furniture building at Inner Harbor East; Tindeco Wharf and Canton Cove in Canton; the planned redevelopment of the once badly polluted Allied Signal site near Fells Point. He also has plans under way to turn the long-closed National Brewery plant in East Baltimore and the Munsey Building at Baltimore and Calvert streets into apartments.

Mr. Struever also lends his extraordinary vision to other people’s projects.

He’s trying to resurrect the Belvedere Square retail complex on York Road.

When the old Camden Yards warehouse was being redone to complement the baseball park, it was Mr. Struever who found a way to have office space on every floor of the gargantuan building, rather than mechanical equipment on half of them.

When the Children’s Museum was looking for a new home, it was Mr. Struever who suggested the former Fish Market on the edge of downtown and helped inspire the idea for Port Discovery — one of the most cutting-edge experiential museums in the country.

When the city school board was reconfigured in 1997 in the hope of massive education reform, it was Mr. Struever — the only retained member of the old school board — who took the lead early in defining what was achievable.

That school board involvement is just one aspect of his civic life: He has served on more than 20 civic boards and committees over the past two decades and has been honored numerous times for his volunteer work.

His associates say he is driven to all of these things by an unswerving commitment to rebuilding communities by capitalizing on what’s already there, and an equally strong belief that this city should aspire to greatness.

He believes in Baltimore’s promise. He works tirelessly to help realize it.

Maybe those are qualities that come with being the Brown University-educated son of a Johns Hopkins professor. Or maybe they come from studying development at the knee of James Rouse.

Whatever the reason, this much is clear: Baltimore would be worse off without Mr. Struever. To see how true that is, you need only look at the many thriving places around town that were once no more than four walls and a foundation.

Copyright © 2000, The Baltimore Sun

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