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Milton D. Lawyer

September 08, 2012|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Milt Lawyer stands in front of his business, Smithsburg Auto Body Shop, in 1992, with a 1935 Plymouth, similar to one he previously had owned, and a 1949 Buick behind it. He and youngest son Brian had driven the Plymouth back from Kansas.
Submitted photo

SMITHSBURG, Md. — Milton Lawyer was known for his Smithsburg body shop and community involvement, but he had many talents unrelated to his business.

He loved music and wanted to study at the Peabody Conservatory, but as the youngest of four sons, there was no money left for him to go to school after his three brothers did.

A year later, when his parents had saved some money, he already had gotten a taste of the work world and no longer wanted to go to college.

“He had a strong work ethic instilled from his parents and growing up on a farm,” said daughter Beverly “Bev”  Lawyer Wiederman of Manassas, Va.

Instead, Milton, known as “Milt” in the Smithburg area, or by his middle name “Delmer” by his wife or those in Thurmont, Md., where he grew up, worked a variety of jobs.

He sold insurance, worked at Fairchild, owned and ran several restaurants in Hagerstown, then started a body shop in Hagerstown, before moving the business — called Smithsburg Auto Body, among other things — to Smithsburg in 1963.

“I remember when he would work three jobs when I was in high school because he said his wife had to buy the best for their children. And to this day, I never, ever heard my father once complain about working,” Bev said. “He was a worker. He was proud to work.”

Smithsburg Auto Body Shop, Towing, Auto Parts & Auto Sales still operates in town, now owned by Milt’s younger son, Brian Lawyer of Wolfsville, Md.

“That’s where I grew up. I grew up in the garage,” said Brian, who was in first grade when the family moved to Smithsburg.

While building up the business, they lived in a new trailer Milt had purchased, until a fire in the shop destroyed the business and trailer.

Milt was painting a car and in those days, the paint was heated on a hot plate. Something spilled and ignited. Milt got out safely, with a minor burn.

“He was a master of his craft,” Brian said.

Oldest siblings Bev and Milton “Buddy” Delmer Lawyer Jr. already had graduated from North Hagerstown High School — Bev in 1959 and Buddy in 1961.

“Once we graduated, we were gone,” Bev said.

Milt rebuilt the business and expanded it several times, Brian said. In 1968, the family moved into the house next door.

In his later years, Milt would sit in the front window, watching the comings and goings from the business and on Water Street in town.

Early on, the business also sold gas and groceries, so it was a real community gathering place.

“A lot of young people would knock on the door at 11 o’clock or midnight and want a dollar’s worth of gas and he’d get out of bed,” Brian said. “He was always very trusting and always helping people out in the community.”

Tow calls came around the clock and Brian remembers one Thanksgiving when he and his father had to leave the family’s holiday dinner for a towing job.

“Duty calls,” Bev said.

Milt graduated from Thurmont High School in 1935. Gayle Spessard grew up on Church Street in Hagerstown and was visiting family near Thurmont when Milt first saw her.

“He saw her and thought, ‘Boy, that’s a really beautiful woman,’” Bev said. Milt was five years older, but Gayle quit school because she was ready to get married.

She was 16 and he was 21 when they eloped to Baltimore in February 1940, returning to Thurmont to live.

About Christmas of 1940, the couple decided to go to California, but returned to Hagerstown before Bev was born in September 1941. Buddy was born two years later.

Milt previously had gone to California “to strike it rich,” but came east when that didn’t happen, Brian said.

“He was entrepreneurial. He really was,” Bev said. 

Milt was working at Fairchild when Buddy was born, which meant he had a draft deferment. He wanted time off to be home with his new son and when the company refused, he took the time anyway.

When Milt returned to work, he was handed his toolbox and shown the door. The draft notice promptly arrived in the mail.

Gayle got a job at Fairchild while Milt was away.

While on a combat training mission with the U.S. Army Air Corps, the B-24 Liberator bomber Milt was on crashed. Milt and the entire crew aboard survived.

He was serving as a chaplain’s assistant in Okinawa when the war ended.

Milt’s love for flying continued and while working at his first restaurant, The Donut Shop (his second restaurant was named in honor of Gayle), he was asked by Daniel Dentler of Dentler Brothers Furniture to go in on the purchase of a small airplane, which he did.

The plane was named Rudolph because it had a yellow and red body and a red nose, Bev said. Bev’s childhood memories include lots of family airplane rides. She said he gave Max Krumpe, founder of Krumpe’s Do-Nuts, his first plane ride.

“We would fly over the Hagerstown Fair at night to see the lights or go to Harrisburg. He was a daredevil,” Bev said, noting that her father liked to swoop down on bystanders. “I just think he was always adventurous.” 

Brian was born on Father’s Day in 1956, two days before Milt’s birthday. In those days, fathers were not included in the delivery, so Milt was at the airport when he got the news of his son’s birth.

The couple also had four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

In addition to attending air shows at Andrews Air Force Base and in the Washington, D.C., area with her parents and Buddy, Bev also remembers the family driving down to Leesburg, Va., on Sunday nights to watch radio and television broadcaster and entertainer Arthur Godfrey, who lived in Leesburg, take off in his plane headed back to New York to tape his show.

Bev said Milt had Godfrey’s autograph on Milt’s pilot’s license.

“That’s the kind of stuff we did,” Bev said.

Gayle’s death in 1992, after almost 52 years of marriage, sent Milt into a tailspin. He still went to air shows with Brian and took up antique cars as a new hobby, Brian said.

“I think he missed her terribly because she did everything for him,” Bev said. “I think if he hadn’t had the store next door and Brian next door, it would have been a different story.”

Brian said his father loved going to automobile auctions in Harrisburg and York, Pa., and at age 93, still was driving cars back from auction.

“He thrived on that,” Brian said.

As of June, Milt still was driving. Even though he had never had any major illnesses, his body started failing him and by July 4, he had stopped walking and slowly declined until his death.

After almost 50 years in Smithsburg and serving on the town council for 20 years and as a life member of the town’s fire company and ambulance company, Milt’s death will leave a void in many organizations, as well as in the lives of friends and family.

“It’s going to be a big adjustment,” Brian said. “I’ve been around him just about every day of my life.”

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Milton D. Lawyer, who died Aug. 28 at the age of 94. His obituary was published in the Aug. 30 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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