A class act by Vincent Groh, and the school board has what in its trash?

March 17, 2003|By TIM ROWLAND

Anyone with lingering doubts about the abilities of Washington County Schools Superintendent Betty Morgan need only peep at the photo on the front page of the March 5 Morning Herald.

There's Vincent Groh, purveyor of more empty floor space than a principal at a middle school slow-dance, giving the historic Henry's Theater building to the City of Hagerstown for eventual use as a magnate school for budding young performers and artists.

Yes, giving. Yes, that Vincent Groh. If you can dust off the heart of Hagerstown's own Mr. Burns, as Morgan and city economic development coordinator Debbie Everhart did, what can't you accomplish?

Of course it is Groh who deserves the spotlight - the old theater is a tremendously valuable gift sitting as it does in the heart of the city's proposed Arts & Entertainment District. The school will be named after Groh's late wife, Barbara, herself an artist, performer and teacher.


Most everyone in government, development and real estate in Washington County has a Groh story, and for the most part these stories aren't positive. He clings to each tax dollar as if it were his left ventricle, he fumes at government telling him to so much as cut a hedge, and he has no problem buying historic properties and letting them sit empty to the point of rotting, knowing someone will eventually pay him a premium for the property just to save it from turning to dust.

But for the first time in decades, if ever, the community got to see the human side of Vincent Groh - and liked what it saw. He got a standing ovation at the presentation ceremony, and throughout the community people not in the habit of saying encouraging things about Groh are, if not singing, at least whispering his praises.

It's nice to see the generous side of Groh, to see him, in a sense, join forces with the city. He's invested a lot of money in the community, but he has never seemed to invest a lot of himself. Not publicly, at least.

But recently he's done some renovation downtown, and now this. He better be careful, or he's going to find himself with a vested, emotional stake in the success of downtown Hagerstown.

Perhaps it took someone who herself can be -oh, what's the tasteful word I'm looking for here - "purposeful" to break through the small-city real estate mogul's tough exterior. This may be the first time Groh has ever met someone as stubborn as he is. He was probably impressed.

On taking the helm of Washington County schools, Morgan was reportedly given a tour of the downtown, where the theater building came to her attention and spawned the idea for a magnate school.

Knowing Groh owned the building, her guides quickly tried to discourage the thought, believing pigs would fly before Groh could be coerced into showing any sign of largesse.

Morgan didn't hear them. Or if she did, she paid no attention, and thus Groh found his name programmed into Morgan's "call hassling" feature. And to help matters, Everhart for some time had taken the good-cop role, trying to help settle some ongoing rifts Groh had with City Hall.

Was Groh the toughest human challenge Morgan has tackled since coming here via Baltimore and New York? Probably not.

Consider this story, related by several local-government sources:

Last week Washington County Commissioner John Munson barged into a meeting Morgan was conducting at the school board's central office, demanding to see the board's - what, its budget? It's program proposals? No, he wanted to see the board's dumpsters.

Apparently, someone identifying him or herself as "a constituent" had told the commissioner that the school board had thrown away some perfectly good office chairs. Smelling government waste, Munson bounded to the scene like a hound to coons, saw the items and went inside to confront the administration.

The commissioner (who tells me he doesn't want to elaborate on the incident right now, but may in the future) urged Morgan outside to see what he'd found. Shrugging, Morgan got a posse together and all went out to see what Munson had discovered.

I'm not privy to what the superintendent was thinking as she watched one of our Washington County Commissioners pawing through the garbage like some starving raccoon, but it had to be along the lines of "Toto, I don't think we're in Tribeca any more."

Now you have to admire someone who is willing to muck through the garbage in defense of our tax dollars, and I salute Munson for it. But there was a problem. When everyone arrived at the scene of the crime, there was no furniture to be found.

It seems the commissioner had been set up. Some jokester, knowing how much Munson wants to believe the school board is full of waste, and perhaps wanting to show the board in a bad light as well, filed a false tip and the bait was swallowed whole.

When the commissioner stormed into the central office, the merry pranksters, best as anyone can determine, scurried out of the building and retrieved the chairs, so when everyone came back outside there was nothing for them to find.

I'm a little unclear over who the intended victim of the hoax was supposed to be, the commissioner or the school board.

But you have to love the whole Scooby Doo quality of hyjinx. Many of you have asked me over the years why I stay here, and the above story is the reason. There is material like this no other place in America, and now Betty Morgan is getting a dose of the real us.

The superintendent may rightly feel proud of herself for reaching Vincent Groh. But in Washington County, Groh is only the tip of the iceberg.

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