The good sport
Athletic, driven and eager to please, a young Robert Ehrlich always played to win, and made the most of some big breaks.
By John Woestendiek
October 2, 2002
Like all politicians, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has them: those authorized tales from youth that - though twisted or embellished over the years - help define the person he is today.
There is the humble-beginnings-in-a-rowhouse-in-Arbutus legend. There is the story of how he played bruising weekend league football with grown men when he was only 13. And there is this one - about his first days in what at the time seemed like another world to him, Baltimore's exclusive Gilman School.
A fellow student at the highly competitive private school, wearing the required coat and tie and, presumably, a sneer, approaches the 14-year-old son of a car salesman between classes. "You don't belong here," he says.
Bobby Ehrlich, already close to 6 feet tall by then, takes one step toward the student.
"I am here," he says.
Indeed he was, by virtue of a scholarship - the first of many breaks Ehrlich would get in his youth, partly from connections, partly through sheer luck, partly because of what influential people saw in him.
They define it as "drive," a confident, intense, even fiery focus that - while most evident on the football and baseball fields - went beyond that.
With it, he would quickly fit in at Gilman, graduate with athletic honors and go on to Princeton University, Wake Forest University law school, the Maryland General Assembly and Congress.
Now, at 44, he is here: in the thick of a heated race for governor with Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - one in which he is portraying himself, in contrast to his opponent's "life of privilege," as a working-class guy who hasn't forgotten the rowhouse in Arbutus from which he came.
In reality, that rowhouse - purchased in 1967 for $11,200, worth more than $100,000 now - is a comfortable three-bedroom home in a solid working-class neighborhood. His parents, though of moderate means, gave their only child the kind of care, attention and dedication that may be the best kind of "privilege" of all. And when times got tough, there was more than one well-heeled guardian angel who appeared to help them - and Bobby - out.
He's been very, very fortunate in getting breaks in life," his father,
Bob Ehrlich Sr., admits. "But he has also done a really good job of taking
advantage of them."
Nancy Krauss was the seventh of seven children, the daughter of a small-town police officer in Pennsylvania, and she grew up dreaming of becoming a concert pianist.
Robert Ehrlich Sr. was the sixth of six children, the son of a Baltimore city police officer, and he grew up with no definite career goals.
She, unable to afford college, went to business school and became a secretary. He joined the Marines and, after serving in the Korean War, got a job selling cars in Arbutus.
They met as teen-agers in church. She sang in the choir, and "every time I looked up, he was looking at me," she said. But it wasn't until 1954 that they went on a date, to see a movie called The Moon is Blue - "very racy for its day," she recalls.
In 1956, they married.
On Nov. 25, 1957, Robert Leroy Ehrlich Jr. was born in Baltimore's Bon Secours Hospital, weighing 8 pounds, 3 ounces.
Big even then, he would loom large throughout his childhood - big enough to catch a fastball from his dad at age 5; big enough to be as tall as his Little League coaches at age 12; big enough at 13 to play football with beer-swilling construction workers on a team called the Arbutus Big Red.
For the Ehrlichs, the newborn was all they had hoped for.
Even before marriage, they had agreed to have one child, Bob Sr. says. "God smiled and gave us the best one there is," says Nancy.
She describes Bobby as a low-maintenance infant, pleasant and, as he grew up, eager to please. "He never gave us a sleepless night," she says.
Living in a small apartment in Arbutus - the Ehrlichs moved into the rowhouse when Bobby was 12 - they tried to keep their finances on an even keel, which was difficult with his father's up-and-down income.
"I never made a salary in my life. I always worked on commission," Bob Sr. says. "It was always feast or famine. All my life, I never charged anything; I was always scared ... that I wouldn't have the money when the time came to pay."
Nancy stayed home - "None of this 'working mother' stuff," her husband says - but, once Bobby was in bed, that's exactly what she did, typing for a local company. "I put him to bed at 10," she says, "and typed until 2."
When Bobby was 3, he was enrolled in a Lutheran school so he could be with other children, Nancy says. He attended Emmanuel Lutheran Christian Day School - strong on discipline and heavy on Scripture - through the sixth grade.
"I don't think they sent me there for the religion," the candidate says, "although that is what stuck."
By age 7, he was reading newspaper editorials, and he cried, his mother says (though he doesn't remember it) when Republican Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election.
He vaguely recalls the 1968 election - when, he says, his mother took him to the polls with a beauty-contest-style banner diagonally across his chest that read "Nixon's The One."
Nancy was active politically, working in Republican campaigns and serving one year as an election judge. Bob Sr. remained a Democrat until Jimmy Carter's presidency made him change parties.
Bobby's athletic abilities were apparent from an early age.
"I would throw the baseball to him as hard as I could when he was just 5 or 6, and he would catch it," Bob Sr. says. A self-described "big, slow kid," Bobby, in Little League, was put at catcher.
"He was just a nice, happy-go-lucky, eager-to-learn type of kid," says George Kendrick, who began coaching Bobby for the Arbutus Athletic Association when the boy was 7. He doesn't recall Bobby ever crying about losses, "but he definitely didn't like to lose."
One time, Kendrick says, Bobby was particularly upset at a championship game in Ohio when he caught what appeared to be a crucial third strike, only to hear it called a ball.
While in Ohio, the Ehrlichs visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame - one of only a few trips taken during Bobby's childhood. For one thing, his family couldn't afford it. For another, Bob Sr. says, "we could never leave the dog."
The toy terrier was a gift to Bobby on his 11th birthday, from his father's sister. He wanted to name the dog Rover. His mother told him to come up with something else because the dog was female. He did. Roverette lived until she was 16.
The boy's idols were Dick Butkus, the Chicago Bears linebacker, and Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati Reds catcher.
His idle time - and with sports he never had too much of it - was spent watching The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies and, Bob Sr. says, "football game after football game after football game."
Only once did he get into a fight in school, Nancy says - in seventh grade, after another boy threw his books out a window. It wasn't a serious altercation, and his mother, when she found out, says she was "glad to hear he was standing up for himself.
"We just had a lot of faith in him," Nancy says. "I never gave him a lot of rules to follow. ... It was just, 'Go have a good time; we trust you.' He always had common sense."
Nancy says her son first told her he wanted to be a politician when he was 12 or 13.
She recalls her response: "I said, 'All politicians are crooked.'"
And she remembers his: "He said, 'I won't be, Mom.'"
While there are plenty of exceptions, psychologists say "only children" tend to be self-confident, organized and ambitious. They tend to set high, sometimes unreasonable standards for themselves and others. They mature early and think things through, but they may be selfish, not always work well with others and lack a sense of humor - particularly the ability to laugh at oneself.
Ehrlich would admit to some of those traits and deny others. But he never regretted not having brothers or sisters.
"He was tickled pink at being an only child," says Bob Sr.
Greg DeFrancesco, an only child from Dundalk who got to know Bobby Ehrlich at Gilman, says he never seemed spoiled, but did have a tendency to run the show.
"Only children tend to be take-charge kind of people," DeFrancesco says. "We're used to getting up in the morning and deciding, here's what we're going to play today, and here's how we're going to do it."
Bobby "always put a lot of effort into anything he did. He never did anything half-assed," says former Little League teammate Randy Ruckert, who has known Ehrlich since he was 8.
"He knew sports better than anybody, but he wasn't cocky. He was always modest and down-to-earth," says Ruckert, now an accountant.
Ruckert remembered Bobby's first golf birdie when they were in junior high: "He got it on the eighth hole. When he was done with the ninth, he called his father to tell him."
Ruckert recalls a father - Bob Sr. - who couldn't sit still during Little League games, always up and down, in contrast to his son, who was always calm and focused on the task at hand.
Family acquaintances say Bobby inherited the best of both parents: his mental toughness, strong focus, work ethic and perseverance from his mother; his physical toughness, athletic abilities, sense of humor and car-salesmanlike ability to schmooze from his father.
"Bob [Sr.] was a different kind of car salesman," says Alan Abramson, former owner of Archway Ford, now closed. "He was kind of choosy about his customers, but when Bob got his arm around a customer's shoulder, everybody knew he was going to close the deal."
Bobby would often go to work with his father on Saturdays and ended up working there as a teen-ager, where he was taken under the wing of Abramson.
"He was just extremely likable, a great personality, very mature for his age, and focused," Abramson says. "He seemed to know what he wanted and was very focused on how to go about getting there."
As it turned out, Abramson was a good man to have impressed. He had
friends, country club types. And for Bobby Ehrlich, already blessed with
good looks, charm and doting parents, that - and his ability to knock down
grown men - would open doors.
Nick Schloeder taught and coached football at Gilman. In the summers, he was a tennis pro at a country club. One day in 1970, he stopped by Archway Ford to visit a tennis buddy, Alan Abramson.
While he was there, Abramson pointed to Bob Sr., saying his son was a "pretty good football player. ... Any chance he could get into Gilman?"
Abramson, who had two sons at Gilman and by then viewed Bobby as his "surrogate son," followed up, calling Schloeder to say he had set up a meeting with the Ehrlich family. He told Schloeder to meet them Sunday at the Arbutus Athletic Association football field.
Schloeder recalls the day.
"The boy is 14 years old and he weighs 185. He's too big to play in his age group, so he's playing with 19-year-olds.
"You've got to understand, anybody who is 19 and is playing football on a Sunday afternoon is doing it to get rid of anger. ... It was dirty football. Unbelievable. And the kid's good. He's good."
Midway in the second half, Schloeder noticed that the defensive players were frequenting a specific water cooler.
"They were drinking beer," he says, "and then late in the fourth quarter, I start to smell a funny smell. They were smoking pot."
But not Bobby.
"I never worried about anything rubbing off on him," Nancy says. "He's been exposed to all kind of kids, and nothing ever rubbed off on him."
Two weeks later, Bob Sr. says, a letter came from Gilman - to his continuing astonishment.
Car salesmen's kids didn't go to Gilman. Kids raised in rowhouses didn't go to Gilman. Kids from Arbutus didn't go to Gilman. "Gilman," says his father, "was another world away."
The letter invited Bobby to apply but pointed out the school was "not capable of accommodating boys who are not strong academically."
His father took Bobby to Gilman on several Saturdays - to take a placement exam, to check out the athletic facilities and to meet the headmaster, Redmond C.S. Finney. As it turned out, Finney had been a friend and classmate at Gilman and Princeton of the leader of the elder Ehrlich's platoon in Korea.
Weeks later, another letter came - this one accepting him. Like so much of Ehrlich's childhood, it is taped into one of 14 scrapbooks Bob Sr. has compiled.
At first, Bobby wasn't as thrilled as his father.
"I was 14, but I kind of understood this was a big opportunity, and I didn't want to blow it," he says. "I wasn't happy at the beginning. I wanted to go to school with my friends - the guys I'd gone to school with and played Little League with. Plus wearing a coat and tie? No girls? It was 'What? Are you kidding me?'"
He admits to feeling out of place - especially when he showed up for the first day of class with his over-the-ears helmet haircut, platform shoes and bell bottoms.
"Part of it was I just didn't know anybody," he says. "But also I'd had a completely different set of experiences in my life from most of them."
As told by both his father and Schloeder, Bobby, in his first days there, was approached by the Gilman student who told him he didn't belong. The candidate, in an interview, said he had no recollection of that - although the incident, at least in part, is included in the biography on his campaign's Web site.
While Bobby was quickly accepted by his classmates at Gilman, he admits he had to struggle to keep up academically.
"The first day he came home from Gilman, I remember sitting at the kitchen table, and he said, 'Dad, I'm going to really have to work hard.' He never complained, though," Bob Sr. recalls. "He would get home from football practice at 7, eat, then go up in his room and study, usually until about 2 a.m."
Bobby "was a more determined student than I ever was," says former schoolmate DeFrancesco.
On Gilman's football team, DeFrancesco was a nose tackle and offensive tackle. Bobby played linebacker and fullback, and he played them like he studied - intensely.
"Once he sets his sights on a goal, he's a bulldog about getting it accomplished," says DeFrancesco, who now coaches high school football in Virginia.
Both boys had won non-athletic scholarships to Gilman, which, in the early 1970s, was attempting to diversify its student body. As a result, students from places like Arbutus and Dundalk were accepted - and not just to form a better football team.
"To say that is rather crass," says former headmaster Finney.
"Yes, they were diversifying - particularly if the student was big and strong," says Gerry Brewster, who attended Gilman and Princeton with Ehrlich and ended up a political opponent. "If Bobby had been a 98-pound skinny kid, he wouldn't have come to Gilman."
Even Ehrlich doesn't dispute that, but Finney - who would become perhaps the most influential man in Ehrlich's life - says there was more to the boy than football.
"He was recognized as a kid who obviously was very motivated to challenge himself educationally," says Finney, a Gilman graduate and football star at Princeton.
In addition to adding some texture to the once-homogenized school - it graduated its first black students in 1968 - Ehrlich contributed mightily to its football team, says Alex Sotir, who became football coach shortly before Ehrlich arrived.
"I coached for 22 years, and that's a lot of kids. With some, you can see the wild glare in their eyes, you can see their retinas. He was like that, totally dedicated and involved in what he was doing. I don't mean he was biting people in the throat or anything. He was a rational and reasonable human being."
Later, on the Princeton football team, Ehrlich would be referred to in a program profile as "a fanatic." He co-captained that team in his senior year, until a torn ligament in his right knee, followed by a blood clot, landed him in the hospital for three days and ended his football career. Coping with that, and the difficulty he would later have passing the Maryland bar exam - it took him three tries - were two of the biggest trials of his young life, Ehrlich said.
While at Gilman, DeFrancesco says, Ehrlich was not without his quirks. He was a fan of an obscure British band called Slade, he "had a thing" for pistachio nuts, and he would order his pizza not with extra cheese but with extra sauce.
DeFrancesco says Bobby was the more outgoing of the pair. At gatherings of DeFrancesco's large family - a group, he said, many might find intimidating - Bobby "would walk in, and it would be like he had been in that family all his life. He would remember all their names. He had that knack."
Bobby worked on his first campaign as part of an assignment in Schloeder's government class. Allowed to choose any candidate, he opted for Jervis S. Finney, the headmaster's younger brother, who was running as a Republican for Baltimore County executive.
"I told him, he's not going to win," Schloeder says. "But he said, 'I like Mr. Finney; I want to work for his brother.' That's how he became a Republican. I think he considered being a Democrat, but he said he was more comfortable as a Republican."
While attending school among the rich - among boys whose weekend plans included ski trips, yacht outings and hunts - Bobby still spent Saturdays at Archway Ford, washing cars.
Nancy, working as a secretary for the county recreation department in Arbutus, had moved to higher paying jobs after her son started at Gilman - first as a secretary for a private detective, later for a law office.
Every day for two years, Bobby's father drove him across town to school and picked him up in the evening.
In his senior year, Bobby got his own car, a gift from Alan Abramson. He kept the 1966 Ford Falcon all the way through law school.
He and his family would get more help as well. During one of the family's "famine" periods, Redmond Finney helped them meet expenses with money from a school discretionary fund.
"His father had a real setback, and I did help out when he was at Gilman," Finney says. "At times, the resources just get all used up. I have helped a lot of kids in a lot of different ways. I don't keep tabs."
"I only found that out in the last 10 years - that a part of all the money was actually from him," Ehrlich says. "The only thing he expected in return was for me to compete and achieve."
But the influence of the Finneys on Ehrlich - Redmond was his role model at Gilman and beyond, Jervis helped him get his first job as a lawyer - went beyond monetary.
"He was a tremendous influence on me, and everybody else who graduated from that school," Ehrlich says of Redmond Finney. "He dominated that school. He was a larger than life figure for generations of graduates. It was his stature, the respect he commanded, the way he lived his life. He has extremely high values and morals. You did not want to let Mr. Finney down."
The respect is mutual:
"I could tell even then that he possessed leadership qualities, not in the sense of telling people what to do, but in the sense of mobilizing people and pulling good things out of them," says Finney, who held a fund-raiser for Ehrlich's campaign last month. "He has character and integrity. He's the same person in any setting. He says what he means and means what he says."
Ehrlich was graduated from Gilman in June 1975, receiving the Culver Memorial Football Cup, the Alumni Baseball Cup and the William Cabell Bruce Jr. Athletic Prize.
He was already being wooed by colleges by then, having heard from, among others, Dickinson, Davidson, Clemson, Tulane, Penn, Penn State, Yale, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Maryland.
But once he was accepted at Princeton, the choice was easy.
Ehrlich would go where Redmond Finney went. He would play football with a 51 on his jersey, Redmond Finney's number. And he would date a fellow student from Baltimore, Redmond Finney's daughter.
He would - to supplement his scholarships and student loans - work construction on weekends in Trenton and sell hoagies in the dorms. He would decorate his room with posters of the rock group Kiss, Farrah Fawcett and Dick Butkus; join the Young Republican Club; and become not just co-captain of the football team, but its unofficial designated driver and provider of Bibles, which he would get for free from a Christian athletic organization.
No matter how busy he became - and to this day he calls daily - he never neglected his parents; nor they him. Every home game, they would drive up, taking a batch of fried chicken, says Nancy Ehrlich, who still recalls the day they dropped their only son off at college.
"It was like leaving your right arm there," she said.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun