Civic activism can be a fulltime, fulfilling job

Well, just as the fall season of prime time TV kicks off, the new season of civic/improvement association meetings begins. Which means I, and many others like me, will be out two or three evenings a week, keeping abreast of the latest community developments and missing most of our favorite shows. But then, television is not important in the scheme of things when weighed against the impact of new housing, roads and businesses alongside old schools, old sewer and water lines and other old infrastructure.

So while younger folks have kids to put to bed and older folks don’t want to go out at night, my civic colleagues and I choose to attend educational and informative community meetings. Often, when only a handful of folks show up to share our concerns, we wonder why we do it. Are civic activists a dying breed? Sometimes it looks that way. Then just when we get discouraged, someone like Bud Yingling of Bird River Beach brings in his granddaughter and a new generation of activists seems assured.

Some people are turned off by the word activist, assuming, I presume, that it means obstructionists (or rabble rouser as we say in Essex, hon). Many times I have been described in the newspaper as “a local civic activist” and many times, I admit, I think about the perception vs. reality of the description. I’ve never picketed (well, maybe once during the [SB] 509 debacle) and I’ve never formally debated a subject – in fact, I avoided public speaking like the plague during high school and college.

But when the spirit moves you, and you just know you’re right and someone else is wrong – and the issue is so important that people or the land might be harmed if you don’t speak out…that’s when you become an activist. You find your voice and your passion and the strength to stand up for what you believe in. And you can no longer stand silently by.

It’s sort of like a Good Samaritan story. Would you (could you) pass by an injured person on the side of the road? Would you (could you) refuse to feed a starving animal? Would you (could you) stand by and watch a company pour poisonous chemicals into a stream? Would you (could you) speak out, scream if necessary, to get the attention of others, to gain the support you need to come to the aid of the person, the animal or the stream?

The final and most salient question: Would you (could you) take the criticism that surely will follow? Is your skin thick enough to endure the questioning of your motives and even personal attacks from those who disagree? If it’s not, that’s OK. You and your skin will surely toughen up with time and practice. Mine has.

Activism does not mean negativity. Many current projects, going back to the extension of MD Route 43, were pushed along and fine-tuned with the help of community leaders. The redevelopment of Riverdale, Tall Trees and Kingsley Park all reflect the imprint of civic groups. Sewer and water extensions likewise.

The world of civic activism needs new blood. There are so many issues and so little time. Middle River has been extremely dirty this year – have you noticed? After two good years, it has looked unhealthy all summer. The decaying windows of some of our sweltering elementary school classrooms have yet to be replaced. You can’t even open them for ventilation. So if you have no other cause, not other concern, why not crusade for clean water or better schools?

Whatever matters to you, please come out to your local civic association meeting. There’s a list of them in The Avenue’s Community Guide. If you can’t find one that fits your needs, visit our umbrella group, Essex-Middle River Civic Council on the first Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at Victory Villa Community Center, Martin Boulevard and Compass Road. For your own satisfaction and the well-being of future generations, become an activist.

Jackie Nickel

Sept. 21, 2005

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Florida Vacation, July, 1953

Nickel Family Home Movie Archives
Florida Vacation, July, 1953
Look for the Weeki Wachee Mermaids at the end.

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Argentina Cruise, Jan. 1967

Nickel Family Home Movie Archives
Marian Nickel McKew and Mac McKew

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Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Dept. 1952 Fish Fry

Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Dept. Fish Fry
Sunday, August 31st, 1952.
Decker’s Grove, Turkey Point Road, Essex, Baltimore, Maryland.
Home movie from the Nickel Family Archive.

Posted in 1950s, Essex / Middle River, Fall, Home Movie, Nickel Family History, Rockaway Beach | Leave a comment

How Kunigunda Claus got to the North Pole, a Christmas tale

By Jackie Nickel, 12-20-2006

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Rudolph, you know the elves, by their jobs if not by their names, and of course you know Santa Claus. But behind every good man like Santa, there’s a wonderful, devoted, hardworking woman, and at the North Pole that woman is Mrs. Claus, a beautiful lady about whom little has been written. Until now, that is.

We were lucky enough to run into some cousins of Mrs. Claus while in Canton, the heart of Baltimore’s early German settlement, a couple weeks ago. The Foertshbecks and Foehrkolbs, the Hombergs and Hofferberts, the Klausmeiers and Krannebitters, the Wilhelms and Winterlings – they all knew Kay Claus’s family going way back to the Black Forest of Germany where she was born. Although everyone calls her Kay, Mrs. Claus’s real name is Kunigunda, a good old German name. Kunigunda Weinerschnitzel.

Kay’s family owned a lumberyard in Bavaria and when her mother died of pneumonia at an early age, Kay took over the task of raising her 11 brothers and sisters and helping run the family business as well. Tragically, one early December day, her Papa was killed in a timbering accident and Kay was left all alone to care for her siblings. There was very little to celebrate that Christmas Eve.

After the children were tucked into their beds, Kay sat down next to the tall fir tree decorated with fruit, nuts, and paper garland and began to weep. Just a young woman herself, she missed her Mama and Papa and had no idea how she would be able to support a family. She heard a swoosh as Santa’s sleigh landed on the roof and hid behind the tree as handsome, young Santa slid down the chimney. Kay watched as he delivered more presents than ever before, scattering them all around the tree until he came to the place she was hiding.

“Kay,” Santa said peering through the branches. “I know what a struggle you are having. I will help you care for the little ones. Each year I will bring enough coats and clothes and mittens – and toys too – for the whole family. And for you, there will be special things too. It’s the least I can do for someone so good and pure of heart.”

All year long, Santa looked forward to his Christmas visit with Kay and she no longer hid, but sat down with him to enjoy the milk and homemade gingerbread cookies she had prepared. As anyone could see, there was a gleam in their eyes and a spark between them. At last, one year, when Kay’s brothers and sisters were almost all grown up, Santa asked for Kay’s hand in marriage.

“Next year, Kay, I would like for you to go back with me to the North Pole and be my wife,” Santa expressed on bended knee. “You are the most beautiful person I have ever known and I have fallen in love with you.”

Kay’s cheeks turned extra rosy and her eyes welled with tears as she accepted the beautiful red ruby ring Santa presented in a velvet box. “Oh, Santa, of course I want to marry you. But what about the children?”

“The younger ones can come with us,” Santa replied. “They can learn from the elves how to make toys or help with the reindeer and sleigh. I love you all and want you with me always.”

“Next year,” said Kay. “I need time to prepare.” A woman needs time, you know.

So for the next 12 months, Kay and her family and friends prepared, packing up things she would need in the North Pole. Although she wore her ruby ring proudly, some didn’t believe it was really from Santa. Some just didn’t believe in anything at all. But Kay believed with all her heart that it was the goodness in the world coming through Santa’s love that was calling her to the North Pole. And on the following Christmas Eve, she waited with her younger brothers and sisters for Santa’s final visit.

Santa, of course, had to make the trip to Kay’s house the final stop of the night. He needed an empty sleigh to be able to carry his bride-to-be and her siblings to their new home. And to be honest, he was a bit nervous, having been a bachelor all his life. Asking someone to take on the duties and name of Mrs. Santa Claus was a lot to request of a young woman.

And Kay was nervous too, uprooting her family and moving to a strange and faraway land. But she was in love and she knew her job would be to help spread love and joy and Christmas spirit throughout the world. What more could anyone hope for?

It was a foggy night and Santa was running a bit late with his deliveries. He was a bit sooty too, having gotten stuck in a few damp chimneys. But when he arrived at Kay’s house, all the soot and fog magically disappeared and the stars shone brightly, illuminating the winter sky. Kay and her family said goodbye to their house and loaded their things into the sleigh as snowflakes fell gently around them. Santa helped Kay into the front seat beside him, tucked her in with a warm coverlet and knew this was his partner for life.

As they dashed away into the cold, clear night, Kay smiled as she waved goodbye to her old life and the town below. The next day she and Santa were wed in a big North Pole ceremony and celebration with all the elves and reindeer joining in. And now every year, on the day after Christmas, Santa and Kay Claus take a sleigh ride to mark their wedding anniversary. They fly very high so no one ever sees them, but checking on Kay’s family still in the Black Forest, and also on those whose descendants have moved to America. The Clauses pay special attention to Highlandtown and Canton, to Essex and Middle River and Perry Hall and Parkville and Rosedale and even White Marsh where a lot of new families now live. They check up on all of us, in fact, each and every one – because we’re all one big family you know.

Well, that’s the story of how Kunigunda Weinerschnitzel became Mrs. Santa Claus that I learned while talking to folks in East Baltimore. Kay and Santa are continuing their mission of spreading Christmas spirit all year long while living happily ever after with the reindeer, elves and some of Kay’s nieces and nephews – little Weinerschnitzels – at the North Pole. They all send their love, and so do I. Merry Christmas!

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R.I.P., Marian McKew (1995)

By Jackie Nickel (The Essex Times, January 4th, 1996)

As many of you know, my mom, Marian McKew, died of lung cancer two days before Christmas, 1995. First, I want to thank everyone who visited the funeral home, sent flowers, cards, food, Mass cards and called to express sympathy. It’s such a tribute to her character to have so many express their love for her. My sons and I were deeply touched by your kindness as we were by her love. Special thanks to my pal at The Sun, Joe Nawrozki, for the beautifully written obituary. For those of you who missed it, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my mom.

Marian Sophia Nickel (she hated that middle name) was born on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 81 years ago. She was named appropriately after the Blessed Mother Mary. Although her mother modernized the name to Marian, her dad always called her Mary.

After losing her mom to pneumonia at the early age of 14, Marian became somewhat of a mother herself, caring for her younger brother Buddy and looking after her beloved dad, “Hon” Nickel, who owned the Gayety Theatre in the heyday of burlesque. She assumed so much responsibility early on that carried over throughout her life.

Marian, the daughter, took business courses at the Institute of Notre Dame so she could help run her father’s business. Marian, the sister, looked after Buddy until his death 25 years ago. Marian, the wife, was loving in her care in sickness and in health. Marian, the niece, cared for the aunt and uncle who helped raise her in their senior years.

But it wasn’t until she became a mother and grandmother herself that she got the chance to put all her nurturing spirit into action.

She gave birth to me, her only child, in 1942 and devoted herself to motherhood, with that unconditional love only a mother can know. Deprived so young of her own mother’s presence, Mom devoted herself to providing me with everything she missed out on after her own mother died, both physically and emotionally.

Education was the key to all success, she believed, and Mom made sure I got the best even when times were tough — sending me to prep school at Notre Dame of Maryland and to campus life at College Park.

Although she was a devoted mom, she surely outdid herself as a grandmother. With three grandsons presented to her in a five-and-a-half-year period, Mom truly got to practice her maternal expertise, becoming a substitute father in many instances as well. Scott, John and Mike stayed out of trouble, they say, only because they were afraid “Mom Mom” would find out. Once again, she stepped in to ensure her boys would be well educated, through parochial school, private high school and college. In later years, Mom began to reap the rewards of her efforts, seeing not only me, but also her grandsons develop successful careers. She was especially encouraging and proud when I made the move, in the midst of her illness, to The Essex Times.

With mom’s responsibility came strength. She carried her family and friends through many crises. Sustained by her faith, Marian lived by the words of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

She has imparted her strength on her family and friends, along with the courage and wisdom of that prayer. But more importantly Mom has at last reaped the reward of true serenity in the heavenly home she surely earned. She continues to look over all of us with a mother’s love, not only her daughter, grandsons, daughter-in-law, godchild and cousins, but her friends as well.

Her Women’s Club who affectionately called her “mother,” her closest friends, Jennie and Angela, her neighbors, who looked on her as the matriarch of the community, and her many other friends feel her loss but have gained her strength.

Mom promised me a year and a half ago when we learned she had cancer that she would not die until she knew I was strong enough to go on without her. But I and my children, our family and friends are not without her — Mom’s presence is more powerful than ever as she continues to watch over us, as alive and loving in our hearts as she was in our lives.

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Christmas 1969

“We didn’t go to the mall to visit Santa in 1969. We went to the volunteer firehouse. Rockaway Beach VFD held a yearly Christmas party for local kids. That’s me in my bubble head wig, my three boys, and Santa Steve Woomer.” — Jackie Nickel

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When the smallest voice speaks the loudest, be thankful

By Jackie Nickel (11/20/2006)

Sometimes you have to look pretty hard for something to be thankful
for and then the simplest thing comes along and you realize how lucky
you are. Such was the case last week when I was called for emergency
babysitting duties with my little grandson Thomas.

Tom is a rambunctious three and-a-half year old now and attends
preschool/daycare with other kids his age. Early last week he took a
tumble into the corner of the sandbox and wound up getting three
stitches above his right eye. Tom was very brave during the emergency
room visit, according to Daddy, and Mommy stayed home with him the
next day to be sure he was OK. The following day though, Mommy and
Daddy thought Tom needed an extra day at home and asked me to come to
their house to watch him. So I headed out in the dark at 6 a.m. the
next morning, exhausted from days of research and running around with
lots more work to do on my Essex history book revisions. Work can
wait, however, when it comes to my only grandchild. They’re little for
such a short while you know.

I arrived at the door and there was Thomas in his Spiderman pajamas
with a bruised and swollen eye, accented all the more by a slanted
line of black stitches that looked just like those drawn on cartoon
characters. “Hi, Tom,” I said. No answer; the little patient was
engrossed in an old Spiderman episode on TV. “No bandage?” I asked.
No, replied Mommy, the doctor said to leave it off today. “Hi, Tom,” I
said again. Still no response from the kid rolling around on the sofa.
“You’re supposed to be taking it easy today,” I reminded him.

With his budding shiner, Tom looked like the caricature of a burglar
as seen in old-time cartoons. All he needed was one of those black
“crook” caps and a sack slung over his shoulder, I thought. Still no
hug or greeting for Mom Mom though. Oh well, he was still feeling a
little under the weather.

Tom played with his trucks and dinosaurs as he insisted on playing the
same Spiderman DVD over and over. Nothing I said could convince him to
watch CNN, Home and Garden or the Food Network. But then, at least he
was being quiet and not rough-housing and my job was to make sure he
wouldn’t reinjure his eye.

We had peanut butter sandwiches and split a banana for lunch as
Spiderman played for the 20th time. Tom made sure I knew the
difference between Lizard Man and the Green “Gobbelin” as he
pronounced it. “Is he like a turkey gobbling?” I asked. “No, Mom Mom;
you’re silly,” said Tom. “It’s only pretend.”

I vegged out on the couch wishing for C-Span or the Weather Channel as
rain beat against the sliding glass doors and I visualized how high
the tide must be back home. Tom decided to dump a huge box of Legos on
the floor in front of me as Spiderman shot more goopy webs from his
wrist on the television screen. “This is a car,” Tom said of a
three-foot tower of Legos with four small wheels at the bottom.
“That’s a very tall car,” I observed. “This is the dangerous part,”
Tom replied pointing to a hollow spot at the bottom. “Oh, OK.”

I was almost dozing off when I heard the small voice. “I love you, Mom
Mom.” Huh? Tom was working intently on the top-heavy Lego car and not
even looking at me. “I love you,” he repeated. I wanted to hear it
again, this spontaneous expression of affection. “How come?” I asked.
“Because I just love you,” answered Tom so matter-of-factly.

It took me two hours to get home that evening because of the big rain
storm. Traffic crawled along the beltway and the glare from headlights
on the wet roadway strained my tired eyes. But I had a smile on my
face the entire ride home just replaying in my mind those precious
words of unconditional love.

So despite hard luck and health problems of the past six months, you
see how much I have to be thankful for? May everyone be so lucky – to
have such a small voice speak to your heart when you least expect it.
Happy Thanksgiving!

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Shaking hands with a lucky leprechaun

By Jackie Nickel (3/13/2005)

“Mo-oo-om!” my son sighed rolling his eyes at me Saturday evening at
Pizza John’s. I’d embarrassed one of my kids again.

“What?” I asked giving him a sharp stare.

“You might have insulted that man!”

“Insulted him?” I retorted. “He probably felt complimented!”

“But you don’t kno-o-ow…”

“I don’t know?” asked I, sarcasm dripping from my tongue. “If I don’t
know the people in this community and how they’ll react then nobody

“OK,” my son admitted. “Maybe we’ll find the pot o’ gold.”

I had been enjoying pizza and root beer with my son, daughter-in-law,
21-month-old grandbaby Thomas and one of his aunts. We were
challenging Thomas’s St. Patrick’s Day vocabulary with words like
“leprechaun, rainbow and pot o’ gold” and our little genius in a
highchair was promptly repeating. “Happy Day!” he says for
Valentine’s, birthdays and St. Pat’s ‹ one phrase fits all.

When Tom got bored he started shaking his head in a vigorous “NO”
until he made himself dizzy, which he sometimes likes to do. He
finally hit his chin on the table and let out a wail. Mommy picked Tom
up to soothe him as Daddy got the portable DVD player out and popped
in “Nemo,” Tom’s favorite.

Finally we resumed eating, discussing the prospects of finding good
corned beef for St. Paddy’s Day. I was facing the restrooms when
glancing up from my pizza I saw a splash of Kelly green. “Look, it’s a
big leprechaun!” I announced, nodding to the rear of the dining room.
“OK, Mom,” my son dismissed as the girls glanced back. Tom was still
immersed in Nemo.

The leprechaun was a middle-aged man in a bright green Natty Boh
shirt, lots of shiny green beads around his neck and a tiny green
derby hat perched atop his balding head. As he walked toward the exit
he had to pass by our table and I was not about to let a leprechaun
pass by without at least shaking his hand for good luck. And to show
appreciation to him for walking through Pizza John’s in that outfit as

I reached out and touched the man’s arm and told him I loved his
outfit, adding, “Look, Tom, it’s a big leprechaun!” Tom was mesmerized
by Nemo so I pushed the DVD player aside and forced him to meet the
leprechaun who by then had removed his jacket so we could get a better
look at his shirt. I told Tom to “Shake hands with the big leprechaun”
and he put his little hand out on cue. The man happily shook Tom’s
hand as well as mine, and revealed “Now you’ll find the pot o’ gold”
as he left smiling.

Then came the “Mo-oo-om!”

So what was embarrassing about the incident?

“He could’ve been offended that you called him a BIG leprechaun,”
offered my son.

“Well, he WAS big!” I stated emphatically.

There’s a certain confidence that comes with age and that includes
being comfortable with stopping a leprechaun, big or little, and
asking him to shake your hand. I just wish I’d had my camera. Happy

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Rockaway Beach Grand Fish Fry, 1958

Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department
Grand Fish Fry
Decker’s Garden
(Hoffman’s Lounge, Bobby B’s)
Sunday, August 31, 1958

Posted in 1950s, Fall, Home Movie | Leave a comment