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Twilight falls at Fort Ritchie

July 19, 1998

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

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Fort RichieBy SHEILA HOTCHKIN / Staff Writer

FORT RITCHIE - Before Fort Ritchie's closing ceremonies Friday, Lt. Col. Francis D. Clepper Jr. surveyed an appropriately gray, overcast sky covering the installation's 638 acres.

"But quite frankly, the fog lifted and the sun broke through," he said, calling the weather a harbinger of the base's bright future in civilian life.

Doggedly overlooking the somber occasion at hand, organizers set the scene for Fort Ritchie's inactivation ceremony with lively music and speakers focused on upcoming opportunities for the installation.

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"We look forward to the future at the same time we recall the fort's legacy," said U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md.

The ceremony, held three months before Fort Ritchie's final closure, is "a tradition that formally retires the colors of a military organization," said a narrator before it started. Fort Ritchie will officially close on Sept. 30.

The ceremony was followed by the base's final "Twilight Tattoo," a tradition that combines patriotic music with demonstrations of military precision drills.

Crowds lined Fort Ritchie's parade field for the event, spilling well beyond the two white tents on either side of the podium. For some, the Western Maryland base was home. Others simply grew to appreciate the longtime neighbor for its beauty and sense of order.

Norleen Hoadley of Shepherdstown, W.Va., travels to Fort Ritchie each month to visit the commissary. She and her husband sat in lawn chairs on the installation's parade field, waiting for its final Twilight Tattoo.

"I'm going to miss driving up that road," she said.

Bobby Laye, whose husband is stationed at the base, also watched, holding the couple's 2-year old son, Nathan. They will be reassigned to a division of Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., following Fort Ritchie's closing.

"It's just really pretty," she said, surveying the field, tucked away in the Catoctin Mountains and surrounded by trees. "They always offered to do a lot for families."

That was a priority, said Jo Clepper, who arrived with her husband over a year ago with the assignment to close the base. "Our main goal was to take care of the families," she said.

The ceremony was "bittersweet" for Jo Clepper, who watched from the front row. "It was like a culmination - with pride," she said.

And her husband said the closing, which was completed three years before the deadline mandated by Congress, was handled professionally.

"You have accomplished this task with distinction and flair," Clepper told his men. "I thank you deep within my heart for a job well done."

All eyes are on Fort Ritchie's future now, and Army spokesman Steve Blizard said the current goal is to find private companies who need the installation's communications capabilities and seek its remote atmosphere.

But whatever happens in the future, the base's history remains for those who called it home.

"What is important is that we never close the spirit that opened Fort Ritchie - the spirit that kept it going," said retired Lt. Gen. Vernon A. Walters, the keynote speaker who came to the installation as both a trainee and an instructor.

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