By ARNOLD S. PLATOU
4:40 PM EST, December 22, 2012
Today, they chair a banking institution with billions in assets, provide medical care for hundreds of families, recruit big-name economic development prospects, head a public library system, lead the YMCA, own a restaurant and steer Washington County governments.
But ask them a simple question — Growing up, what was your favorite toy? — and the decades fade away, taking them back to a time when they were kids at play.
For this Christmastime story, The Herald-Mail contacted 10 Tri-State-area grown-ups whose names will be familiar to many.
Because they responded in the same spirit that the question was asked, we share the stories of a time past.
Dr. Robert Weiss, pediatrician
When he was all of age 4, 5 or maybe even 6, Robert Weiss remembers being gifted with a huge stockpile of Tinker Toys.
“We had a huge canister. Huge! I made, like, buildings and boats that I could sit in!” the 61-year-old Weiss said, his voice still expressing all of the fun that those early playtimes clearly must have been.
With their bare pine rods and round connector pieces, the massive Tinker Toy projects took over the living room of the family’s Oak Hill Avenue home in Hagerstown, he said.
Or they were out on the back porch.
“It was a screened-in porch. I have this memory of maybe building them back there,” he said.
Weiss, who grew up to become a pediatrician and went into practice in 1980, still incorporates the “kid” in all of his office appointments.
For decades, he’s gone about his work with this or that furry little stuffed animal clipped to his stethoscope.
“I still have Alf,” he said, recalling the furry miniature of the furry TV character from the late 1980s. “He’s in the drawer now. I have a bunch. I have lions. I have bears ...”
Donna Brightman, elected member
Washington County Board of Education
“Growing up in upstate New York in a very rural area, I didn’t have a lot of friends to play with,” Washington County School Board member Donna Brightman recalled.
So at the age of 5, 6 or 7, Brightman’s favorite toy in the mid-1950s became the colorful little ball-shaped plastic pieces that were known as Pop Beads. The name came from the popping sound the beads would make when you pushed or pulled their little arm-like extenders into or out of holes in others to make long or short chains.
“I used to play with my chickens and my dog,” dressing them up with Pop Bead necklaces, said Brightman, who is 61 now.
“What I would do, I had a beagle dog and I would dress him up and sort of dance with him,” she said laughing. “This poor dog — his name was Teddy — this poor dog would put up with me dressing him up and dancing with him.
“And I had this fancy little kind of chickens. And I’d put these pop beads around them. The beads would hang together and the chickens looked fabulous with them on.”
Brightman grew up in the little town of Laurens, N.Y., near Cooperstown, N.Y. With her father being a park ranger, her mother a homemaker and “a creek in the backyard with native brookies (trout), we were basically the Walton folk,” she said, referring to a 1970s TV show about a 1930s mountain family.
“We had maple trees. We made maple syrup. We canned. Very good memories,” Brightman said. “We all learned to ski. Yeah, my aunt and uncle had a dairy farm up in that region. In those days, young kids, they were considered to be part of the (work) team.”
But as a little girl growing up, part of her own playtime fun became to play with Teddy and the chickens — in their Pop Bead regalia — along the road that passed by her family home.
As she played, “cars would go past. You could hear their brakes squeal. And the cars would back up,” Brightman said laughing. “They didn’t know what they were looking at. You could almost see the questions” by their expressions.
“And,” she said, laughing, “life’s been all downhill from there.”
Mike Ross, president
Franklin County Area Development Corp.
At age 11 or 12, Mike Ross was the oldest of three boys that Christmas morning in rural Pennsylvania in the 1960s when they all got a big surprise.
“We lived on a farm at the time. And my parents came in and announced we had to go to the barn. The snow — truly, there was a real snowstorm with snow about waist-deep — and we were taken aback to see a pony over there for us,” the 58-year-old Ross recalled.
“That would have been my favorite Christmas as a kid. Getting a pony was my favorite,” said Ross, who has been president of the nonprofit business recruitment Franklin County Area Development Corp. since 1986.
The pony, whose name was Scout, was a brownish color with a lighter mane, Ross said.
The family lived on a 130-acre farm in the little town of Orwigsburg, Pa., about 25 miles north of Reading, Pa., and roughly 120 miles northeast of Chambersburg.
At the time, the family didn’t farm the land, but Ross’ father, who was a school teacher and wrestling coach, “got this idea. He must have watched too much ‘Green Acres,’” Ross said, referring to the 1960s weekly TV comedy show about farm livin’.
“So we had some chickens, some steers for our food supply... So the horse was just for recreation,” Ross said. “All three of us (brothers) rode it.”
The family had Scout for about six years.
Dr. Mary Money, physician
specializing in internal medicine
Dr. Mary Money’s favorite toy growing up was the blue-and-white Schwinn bicycle she got one Christmas when she was probably about 7 or 8 years old.
“Oh, I would just race up and down our driveway,” said Money, whose family lived in a rural area along Leesburg Pike between Herndon and Great Falls, Va.
“Even back then, the road was too busy” for Money and her two older brothers to ride on, “so my brothers and I would race all over the property.”
The property was big — 24 acres owned by her mother, who was a school teacher, and her father, who was the superintendent of a shop repairing tanks and trucks at the U.S. Army’s nearby Fort Belvoir.
Even with all of their races over the property, Money said she doesn’t think she ever won even one of the races.
But even now, though she hasn’t ridden the bike in at least a half-century, the bike is a treasured possession.
It was with her when she became a doctor in 1974 and it was moved with them in 1979, when she and her husband moved to Hagerstown. And it was still with them, packed away, when she opened her own internal medicine practice here in 1980.
As the practice continued, Money took care of patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, stomach issues and more. And she even came up with “a very effective treatment” for many people who suffer from diarrhea after eating, she said.
More recently, however, she herself was hit with what she alone couldn’t cure.
“I have ovarian cancer,” she said. “But I’m doing well and I’ve got a ton of help. All my physicians and patients — everybody knows how grateful I am for all the prayer support.”
She’s on a medical sabattical and is planning to return to her practice in April.
The bike — her favorite toy — has been with her throughout.
Like the tricycle that her brothers passed down to her as they got too old to ride it, the bike has been in storage all these years.
Without a doubt, she said, it was a gift from Santa Claus.
“Oh, absolutely,” she said with a laugh. “He’s a great guy. I still believe in him, too.”
William Reuter, chief executive officer
Susquehanna Bancshares Inc.
headquartered in Lititz, Pa.
“Without any question, my favorite was a baseball,” said Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. CEO William Reuter, remembering his days of playing neighborhood ball on the streets and ballfields of east Baltimore.
“I was 4 or 5 years old when I got my first baseball,” the 63-year-old Reuter said. “My father played. He’d had a chance to sign with the (Pittsburgh) Pirates. So I was kind of indoctrinated into it.”
Though his father gave up the idea of playing with the Pirates, he put his all into raising young Reuter to love the game.
“My father, God rest his soul — we’d practice in the field. My father would hit the highest pop-ups anybody could ever see.
“We grew up right across from a big athletic complex, hundreds of acres of baseball fields, soccer fields.
“Here’s how my summer went: (Early in the morning), we’d have curb ball inside a fenced-in area. We used a ball, something called a Pennsylvania Pinkie. It was pink and it bounced kind of waist high. You threw it from a close distance (at the street curb).
“Depending how you hit (the curb), it could go into the air, down third base or you could hit a home run over the fence,” Reuter said. “You didn’t always know you could hit it over the fence, but you knew you could bunt. And you had to run the bases. And there were kids behind you, trying to catch the ball and throw you out.”
So at about 10:30 each morning, after playing curb ball, the kids would start a game of stickball, Reuter said. That game had a bat — “an old broom handle” — and the Pennsylvania Pinkie for the ball, he said.
Then, in the afternoon, the kids would play basketball and “at night, I got to play Little League baseball,” Reuter said. “I played shortstop and I pitched.”
As he remembered all this, it was the thought of the Pennsylvania Pinkie that caused Reuter to suddenly stop the conversation and turn to Google, finding a picture on the website of the United States Racketball Museum of the only Pinkie known to still exist.
“You could buy those things at the old five- and 10-cent store,” he said. “In those days, it was like 25 cents. A good one would only last five or six games.”
Reuter grew up to become president of the former Farmers & Merchants Bank in Hagerstown and is now head of Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. With about $14 billion in assets, the company’s primary subsidiary, Susquehanna Bank, has more than 220 branches spread from Washington County to areas throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
But his long career in banking hasn’t dimmed the memory of his boyhood days of playing ball.
“I went back to my old neighborhood, the old recreation area, recently,” he said. “I would do anything to go back now to those days.”
Pam Coyle, executive director
Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Libraries
As one of 10 children, “there isn’t a whole lot of toys that you get,” said Pam Coyle, who has been executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Libraries in West Virginia for 10 years.
So because the gifts were usually practical, the toy that Coyle singles out today as her favorite is the see-through, colored Christmas ornament.
Her parents gave one to each of their children on Christmas morning in their home in Waynesboro, Pa.
The tradition began when Coyle was, at age 7 or 8, one of the oldest of the children.
For the next five or six years, each child would be delighted upon finding his or her own ornament — hand-decorated with his or her name and with glued-on glitter — already hanging on the tree, Coyle remembered.
“Every year, you’d get a different one, a different color glass. They were round ornaments, about 2 or 3 inches” in diameter, she said.
Probably, it was her mom who did the decorating. “I don’t think my father,” she said. A paratrooper during World War II, “he was one of those Irish macho people,” she said laughing.
The tree, itself, was part of their Christmas morning surprise, too.
“We bought the tree Christmas Eve. My parents put it up Christmas Eve and when we got up, it was there. And it came down on New Year’s Day,” Coyle said.
“Reason why they’d buy it Christmas Eve was, everybody was selling them cheap then. My parents were not going to pay good money for it,” she said, laughing again. “Some years, we ended up getting it for free.”
Coyle who went on to a career working at public libraries, was the director of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial Free Library in Waynesboro during the 1980s.
Looking back now, she said that her love of the ornaments she got as a child is “one of the reasons I collect ornaments. I have them from every age, every style.”
Unfortunately, none of her own early ornaments survived the crush of childhood life, she said.
Saving them wasn’t a priority back then.
“It’s ’til you get older and say, ‘Oh, I wish I had that.’”
William McKinley, elected member
Board of Washington County Commissioners
Back when he was about 9, County Commissioner William McKinley remembers delivering the little TV Guide magazines door-to-door in Williamsport each week.
It was about 1953 and in the early days of television, when TV Guide’s distributor decided to reward its young delivery team. And thus it was “the company sent me a Wilson baseball glove in the mail,” said McKinley, who is 68 now.
With that glove, young McKinley played right field in the old Conomac Park in Williamsport’s first organized Little League baseball.
“My team was called the Athletics. There were four teams, all sponsored by local groups. The Athetics won the first league championship,” he said.
Then, he laughed. “I may get some repercussions from some of the boys who remember better,” he said.
McKinley went on to become a vice principal at North Hagerstown High School, principal at E. Russell Hicks Middle School and at Williamsport High School, director of county high schools and executive director of support services.
But the one title that McKinley remembers now with special pride is that he was head baseball coach at South Hagerstown High School for 11 years.
“That was one of the most fun things I did,” he said.
Sarah Ardinger, owner
The Plum restaurant
It seems most appropriate that for Sarah Ardinger, longtime owner of The Plum restaurant in Hagerstown, an antique metal kitchen set was her most favorite toy growing up.
“It was a very large kitchen set” given one Christmas or birthday when Ardinger was growing up on a farm in Mount Sterling, Ky., she said. “I was probably about 4 or 5 years old.
“It had a refrigerator with the little metal door that opened and closed. It had a stove and it had shelves, and pots and dishes,” she said.
The set was a gift from Ardinger’s Aunt Emily — the special person in the family from whom Ardinger got the middle name of Emily.
Back then, Ardinger said she and her parents lived on a tobacco farm, where they raised cattle and sheep, too. The farm was owned by her grandparents.
In part of her grandmother’s attic “that she had made into a big closet for us to play in,” Ardinger and her cousins would take their dolls to the kitchen set and pretend it was meal time.
“It was big enough that we could put out a little table and chairs for our little dolls and things,” she said.
Unfortunately, sometime over the years, the set was misplaced, Ardinger said. She doesn’t know what became of it.
Nowadays though, she has her own real set — the restaurant she bought 22 years ago at 6 Rochester Place in downtown Hagerstown.
Mike Flicek, executive director
“It was a train set,” said Mike Flicek, 61, who has been executive director of the Hagerstown YMCA for 17 years.
“I remember it was one of the bigger ones — before the little HOs came out. I was probably 6 or 7” when Santa Claus likely brought the train and track to the Fliceks’ home in Minnesota, Flicek said.
“It could have been Lionel. I just remember putting it together,” he said.
With no fancy layout or houses, the train nonetheless fascinated him as it “just went around in a circle,” he said. “My dad did mount it on a board afterward.”
Penny Nigh, elected member
Hagerstown City Council
The bride doll that Santa Claus put under the family’s real Christmas tree in their home in Hagerstown’s West End in the 1950s is still dear to Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny Nigh.
“The doll stood, I think, maybe close to 3 feet high. Her hair was a dark brown, a wavy hair. She wore a bridal gown and a veil.
“I still have her. I have her packed away,” Nigh said. “Unfortunately, the arms came apart. My husband fixed the arms.”
But back when Nigh just little, the doll was a good playmate. “You pretended that they walked, that’s how you played with them,” said Nigh, who is now 65.
In the days leading up to that Christmas when the doll arrived, Nigh said she and her brothers began looking around their old two-story frame house for any presents her mother and father might have hidden away.
“When we went snooping as kids, trying to find the gifts in the house,” Nigh found a box that looked a lot like the box in which the bride doll eventually arrived. “My mother told me it was a football helmet and football suit,” Nigh said.
Nigh believed her. And she still does today.
“You want to believe Santa Claus is going to be there,” she said. “Still, today, you do believe.”
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