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Fort Ritchie celebrates its final Fourth

July 05, 1998|By DON AINES

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT

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Fort Ritchie

FORT RITCHIE - Towing children by the hand or struggling under awkward burdens of lawn chairs, blankets and coolers, people made their way across Lakeside Drive on Saturday to find a good spot to have a barbecue and watch the night's scheduled fireworks.

For decades, the Fourth of July has meant a day at Fort Ritchie for many area residents. Saturday was the last Independence Day celebration there, at least under the auspices of the U.S. Army.

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By early afternoon, several hundred people already had gathered, although the pyrotechnics were hours away. While a man backed by a karaoke machine crooned a country tune off-key, others pitched horseshoes, played volleyball, flipped burgers or lay in the shade.

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"There'll be 5,000 or 6,000 people here, maybe more, by dusk," said Bob Fay, community recreation officer at the fort. He has spent 15 years there planning events such as this and will retire to Waynesboro, Pa., soon.

The formal closing ceremony for the fort will be July 17, although the actual turnover to civilian control won't happen until this fall, according to Lt. Col. Frank Clepper, garrison commander.

"By 30 September we'll be down to about three people," said Clepper, who was dressed for the day in shorts and a T-shirt. When he arrived little more than a year ago, there were still about 2,000 people at the fort, split evenly between military personnel and civilians.

Clepper said the number has dwindled to about 650 soldiers and civilians.

From here Clepper goes to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he'll be garrison commander at Fort Hamilton.

"Quite a culture change," said Clepper as he looked around the sylvan setting of Fort Ritchie.

There were no patients under the first aid tent, but Lt. Col. Judith Jackson, Capt. Sherry Clower and Sgt. Denton Hudman were ready. Jackson will retire, Clower plans to leave active duty and Hudman is headed for Fort Irwin, Calif.

"This has been the perfect assignment," said Clower, of Westminster, Md. She said she enjoyed the community atmosphere and the size of the fort allowed people to work closely with one another.

Glenn and Treva Murphy of Taneytown, Md., have been coming to the base for groceries, medical care and other services since he retired from the Navy in 1974, but had never been to the fireworks.

"That's why we're here today," Treva Murphy said.

Glenn Murphy said he will miss "the personal touch of the place."

Sharon Burd said her family has rarely missed a Fourth of July at the fort since her husband was assigned to nearby Camp David in 1970.

This year she came with 16 people, including children, spouses, grandchildren and friends.

"It's like a tradition," she said.

Many of those at the fort Saturday were retired military personnel, some of whom had served there at one time.

George Driskill of Hyattsville, Md., was seeing the fort for just the second time, having been assigned there for a few weeks in 1956.

"I wanted to come see it before they closed it," the retired sergeant said.

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