Distanced From a Difficult Past
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 1998; Page A01
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Brightening the otherwise drab walls of Lynne Craker's mobile home here are a crucifix, a cardboard Coca-Cola poster and a framed photo of her younger brother, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, greeting the pope in Baltimore. A worn carpet remnant is her main floor covering, a battered metal desk her furniture centerpiece.
It's a world far removed from the Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers and rarefied political air of the governor's mansion in Annapolis, Glendening's official residence since 1995. And it suggests how far Glendening has risen from a bleak childhood and paycheck-to-paycheck existence that still ensnares his older sister, two brothers and ex-wife in south Florida.
The ascent of Parris Nelson Glendening, who seeks reelection this fall, is an up-by-his-bootstraps tale of a man who used his intelligence, appetite for hard work and unflagging ambition to climb from Spartan origins to the high echelons of society and government. Not only was he the sole family member to attend college but he earned a PhD. Not only did he enter politics but he reached the pinnacle of state power.
But Glendening also is a man seemingly conflicted by his past. In many ways he has closed the door on his childhood. He almost never mentions his late mother, has little communication with his four siblings, and hasn't visited the three of them who live in Florida since they gathered for a brother's funeral six years ago.
Sometimes he has tried to alter the past, apparently for political purposes or to obscure embarrassing episodes, according to accounts from relatives and longtime acquaintances. He has embellished the log cabin-ish aspects of his childhood, stating that the family had no indoor plumbing for up to a dozen years, when relatives say it actually was about four years. And he recently asserted that he was single when he moved to Prince George's County 31 years ago, when in fact he was married.
Glendening, who turns 56 next Thursday, initially refused to provide The Washington Post with names of relatives or friends who might be contacted for this profile. After The Post went to Florida and located his older sister, youngest brother, ex-wife and several classmates, he authorized several friends to speak on his behalf. Despite numerous requests over several weeks, he declined to be interviewed in time for this article. But he authorized a spokesman to issue a statement last night that Glendening has been "very consistent" in his descriptions of his childhood.
By all accounts, Glendening hails from a tragedy-tinged family and a childhood that would snuff the ambition out of less-driven people. His mother, Jean, discouraged him from attending college and showed him little love or care, some family members say. (Perpetually low on cash, she once treated herself to an ice cream soda while making Parris and the other children wait outside the drugstore, according to her stepfather). Glendening's father, Raymond, rarely was home, struggled to support the family and died at 49.
Glendening's past is more than a compelling story of a poor boy who made good. It suggests the roots of his belief that government can be a progressive force to redress social ills. More specifically, it may be the underpinning of his emphasis on public education, aid to mentally disabled adults and after living with a bingo-obsessed mother opposition to commercial casino gambling. Those who know him best sometimes marvel that he reached this point.
"That boy had so much to get away from it's pathetic," said Frank J. Church, Jean Glendening's stepfather and a man who has admired Glendening since his childhood. "He's like a fellow who fell into a cesspool and managed to climb his way up. I don't know how in the hell he did it."
'A Very Weird Family'
Dana Glendening recalls sitting in a dimly lighted Fort Lauderdale bar, the Encore, several years ago, noticing a man with two friends at the other end.
"I said, 'Gee, that guy looks familiar,'" he said. About 20 minutes later he realized it was his brother, Parris.
Parris Glendening, then the executive of Prince George's County, was making one of his occasional visits back home, where he sometimes contacted longtime friends such as his former roommate, Lou Giacobazzi, before making brief visits to his siblings.
"We're a very weird family," said Dana, who shares his house with a niece, her husband and their baby. "We're not very close. Everybody went their own way."
He said he last saw Parris in 1992, when the family gathered for Bruce's funeral. With his oldest brother involved in busy government jobs, Dana said, "it's very difficult to pick up the phone and say, 'How are you doing?'"
A few miles away, his sister Lynne says she, too, seldom talks with Parris. "You call him and he's not there, and you don't get hold of him," she said. "I hear from him a couple of times a year. . . . He doesn't get down here much." She said she visited her brother twice in Maryland before he became governor, but his political and teaching jobs already were demanding. "You go up there and you can't spend much time with him," she said.
Giacobazzi, a postal worker in Fort Lauderdale, said that Glendening has not been to Florida since 1992 but that in earlier visits he was always courteous to his relatives. "He'd never come into town and not visit all the family members," he said. "He was crazy about his nieces, Lynne's girls."
When Glendening was inaugurated as governor in January 1995, the only sibling who attended the ceremony was his sister April Paulin, a Marine gunnery sergeant now based in Okinawa. In an interview at the time, she lavished praise on her brother and seemed delighted at his success.
In Florida, Dana said he and the other siblings didn't "have the resources" to make the trip.
Living 'Week to Week'
Raymond Glendening and Jean Purnell met and married in New York in the 1930s. Lynne was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, Parris Nelson in 1942 in the Bronx, and Nelson in 1944 in Smithtown, on Long Island. Their mother, a Nelson Eddy fanatic, gave the singer's name to her first two sons. "Parris" was a character in "King's Row," a popular novel made into a Ronald Reagan movie.
Lynne says the young family lived above a service station that Raymond managed in Smithtown. The business failed, however, and in 1947 they moved to Miami, where Jean's mother, Mona by then married to Frank Church was living. Parris was 5.
They moved into a small rental home in the northwest Miami suburb of Hialeah while Raymond slowly built a house nearby. The rental home had no indoor plumbing, and the family used an outhouse for "maybe three or four years" while the new house was constructed, Lynne said.
Church, interviewed for this article with Glendening's blessing, called the rental home neighborhood "real slums, across the street from a rock pit." Young Parris and his friends used the water-filled pit as a swimming hole. For a while, Church said, the family's only electricity was "a bare bulb hanging in the kitchen, from a wire running from the next-door neighbor's."
Lynne Craker recalls: "We had an ordinary life. We weren't deprived or anything . . . but we never had real luxuries. We pitched in to help out." Parris sold magazines door-to-door, she said, and worked at a drugstore as a teenager.
Soon after the family arrived in Florida, twins April and Bruce were born. Dana, nicknamed Iggy, was born in 1956. Raymond, the father, serviced airplanes at a nearby airfield, managed a Texaco station, drove a milk truck on weekends and eventually owned a small machine shop that manufactured or altered metal parts for aircraft. The family's financial situation, Lynne said, "most of the time was just week to week."
When Christmas came, she said, "it was like, if you needed shoes, you got shoes. . . . You knew what you were going to get because you knew what you needed." She said her mother "never got the tree until Christmas Eve, but she never wanted to take it down. One year it stayed up past Easter."
Church has far harsher memories of Jean, the only child of his late wife, Mona, to whom he was married for 46 years. As a young mother, Jean often asked her parents for money, Church said. Once, when Mona gave Jean a little cash for groceries, he said, Jean used it to attend a Nelson Eddy concert. "The kids just weren't going to eat, that's all," he said.
In an interview last December with Suzi Slye, who hosts a religious-oriented program on several cable television networks in Maryland, Glendening said: "We grew up, by the way, very poor, financially poor. . . . I can remember when we had outdoor facilities, an outhouse. I can remember when we first had electricity. . . . But it didn't hurt us. We had a strong family."
Education and Escape
People who knew Glendening as a youth invariably agree on one thing: He was a bright, hard-working student. The governor often notes that his parents didn't attend college and his father constantly emphasized the importance of education. Glendening embraced that advice even if his brothers and sisters did not.
As a boy, he didn't play sports or have hobbies, his older sister said. "He'd read books and that's it."
By the time Glendening was 15, his family had moved to Fort Lauderdale. He and Lynne attended Central Catholic High School (now known as St. Thomas Aquinas High), where Glendening flourished. Odessa Fisher taught advanced literature, "and she singled out several of us and thought we could do better work, and Parris was one of them," said former classmate Barbara Ringenberger. "He was an excellent student."
Glendening graduated in 1960 and reached a crossroads. He wanted to attend college, but his mother discouraged him, according to Church and Giacobazzi.
"She didn't want him to go to school; she wanted him to be a bag boy so he could bring money home every Friday night," said Church, who lives in Okeechobee, Fla. He and Giacobazzi said Glendening's mother at one point refused to sign some papers, apparently dealing with scholarships, important to his college ambitions.
But with his father's blessing, and money he earned at a drugstore, Glendening entered the nearby junior college in Broward County. He also scraped up $7.50 a week to share a $15 apartment near his parents' home.
Giacobazzi, his roommate and classmate at the time, said Glendening easily mixed fun and diligent work. Friends often stopped by, he said, and "we started playing poker, nickel and dime, about every night." The games ended at 11 sharp, he said, "and I went to bed. But Parris would stay up two, three hours a night studying. He worked at getting the [high] grades he got."
Church said Glendening took the apartment because his home life was miserable. "You'd move out too if you came in and there's nothing to eat, your bed's not clean," he said.
Although Glendening has often praised his father, Church said Raymond Glendening provided little buffer between the children and their mother, and rarely earned more than Jean managed to spend on bingo or shopping trips. "Parris has a misconception of his father being a hard worker," Church said. "He'd do anything to stay away from the house."
Glendening obtained his associate degree in 1962 and transferred as a junior to Florida State University, in Tallahassee.
Geographically, the move took him 455 miles from home. Emotionally and intellectually, he leapt just as far, plunging into the academic smorgasbord like a starving man. At FSU he would help found a student political party, write a 188-page dissertation on local government and fire off rhapsodic letters-to-the-editor about "scientific empiricism."
He seemed in a hurry to do everything: earn degrees, enter politics, start a career but first, to marry.
At a social function sponsored by the Newman Center, a Catholic student group, Glendening met a senior nursing student from Tampa, Lydia Virginia Shaw. She was two years older than he, more worldly and somewhat exotic. She had been born in Panama to a Panamanian mother of Spanish and Italian descent, and a father from Oregon who was based in Panama for the U.S. Army.
In Glendening, Lydia Shaw saw a tall, reed-thin man, not greatly polished but burning with ambition and intellect.
"I thought I was swept off my feet," she said in a recent interview outside her home in north Miami. "He was very bright. At that time he had not a lot of charisma, but a lot of good sense. He'd say something and it would make sense, and you'd just want to agree with him. . . . I think probably what set him apart was his focus. He knew what he wanted to do, and how to do it. That was impressive."
In April 1963, one week after the school term ended and within eight months of their first meeting the couple married at Glendening's Catholic church near Fort Lauderdale. Parris was 20, Lydia 22. In the fall, they returned to Florida State for Parris's senior year. Lydia got a job as a nurse, and they lived in the married student housing area.
Glendening earned his bachelor's degree in 1964, a master's in 1965 and a doctorate in 1967, all in political science. At 25, school officials said, he was the department's youngest PhD.
"He wanted to get all that over with, and get on with his real life," Lydia Glendening said.
Some acquaintances later would be surprised that Glendening entered politics, given his bookish and somewhat standoffish demeanor. But Lydia Glendening and others say his calling seemed clear early on. University teaching, she said, would become "his day job" to support his political ambitions.
"I think what he wanted to do, basically," she said, "was be president of the United States."
Coming to Maryland
In the summer of 1967, Glendening was a freshly minted PhD with teaching offers from several universities, including one in Texas. Lydia Glendening believes he chose the University of Maryland at College Park because of its proximity to the nation's capital.
The couple moved to Prince George's County, where Parris started teaching in the fall, and Lydia got a job at the county's general hospital. Their marriage, then four years old, soon began to falter, but legally it lasted another four years.
Within a few years, Glendening would begin his steady climb in Maryland politics as a Democrat, from the Hyattsville City Council to the governor's office. As his political life flourished, so did a new family life. In 1976, he married one of his former graduate students, Frances Anne Hughes, daughter of a Republican state senator from Cumberland. They have a college-age son, Raymond. By all accounts, Glendening dotes on his wife and son, and is close to his wife's family.
During his political rise, Glendening would give varying, sometimes exaggerated versions of his childhood hardships in Florida.
In June 1996, for example, the governor told students at Glen Burnie's Solley Elementary School: "I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old, when we first had electricity in our house, when we first had indoor plumbing." Last month, he told a Baltimore business audience, "My family for quite some time was in extreme poverty." In 1992, Glendening told Washingtonian magazine: "The first 12 to 14 years of my life we literally were without indoor plumbing."
His older sister, Lynne Craker, recalls less severe circumstances. They had electricity and indoor plumbing in all the New York homes, where Parris spent his first five years, she said. In Miami, they used an outhouse while Raymond completed the new home, which took about three to four years, according to both Lynne and Church. Lynne said her only recollection of being without electricity occurred when lightning knocked out a transformer and "we had no power for three weeks."
Glendening has given misinformation about his first marriage. Asked last December by Suzi Slye to recount how he came to Maryland, the governor replied: "I came to Maryland in 1967. I had never been here in my life. In fact, I was hired in a convention in New York. I was 24, and didn't know anyone here. Single. And then [I] started, if you will, socializing with many of the graduate students."
In fact, Glendening was married and living with Lydia when they relocated to Maryland. The divorce petition he filed in April 1971, citing irreconcilable differences, said the couple permanently separated in August 1968, more than a year after they arrived from Florida. The divorce was granted Sept. 20, 1971.
Asked last night about discrepancies in his descriptions of his past, Glendening responded through spokesman Ray Feldmann that in large families with children of varying ages, "people are going to remember different circumstances and different things."
Feldmann said, "From our experience, the governor has been very consistent about his recollections of the circumstances of the early years of his life." The spokesman added, "In some instances, with some audiences, he may be referencing his entire childhood, including the years in the Bronx. In other instances, he may be referencing only his Florida years, excluding his first five years."
The governor had no comment about any matters related to his divorce, including his statements in the Slye interview, Feldmann said.
Lydia also declined to discuss details of her marital breakup. "We just didn't get along that well," she said. The divorce "was quick, amicable, over with and done."
All communications with her ex-husband ended many years ago, she said. She didn't know Glendening was running for governor until a Washington Post reporter telephoned her during the 1994 campaign. "For all I knew," she said, "he could have been dead."
Like some of Glendening's relatives in south Florida, Lydia Glendening has not found life to be easy. She declared personal bankruptcy in 1995, citing liabilities of $93,319 and few assets other than $25,000 equity in her house, which has broken windows and a sign saying: "Beware, bad dog."
'It's a Mystery'
In his 49 years, Raymond Glendening strived for a better life, going from gas station manager to milk deliveryman to owner of a small machine shop. His son Parris continued the upward trajectory his father had begun, and eventually far exceeded it.
The rest of the family, however, seemed to lose momentum after Raymond Glendening died in 1966. No one took over his machine shop business because it was heavily in debt and the banks foreclosed, according to Dana Glendening. The twins, Bruce and April, left Florida by enlisting in the military. The three others stayed in Fort Lauderdale: Dana at the casino, Nelson cleaning floors and equipment at a bowling alley, and Lynne washing glassware for a medical products company.
Their mother, Jean, eventually moved into a mobile home and spent much of her final years playing bingo, Lynne and Dana said. She died of cancer in 1984.
Some admirers of Parris Glendening admit they can't explain how he traveled the path from an inauspicious Hialeah home to the Maryland State House. They're at a loss to say why he devoured books in a household where few others bothered, why he burned for a PhD when no siblings attended college, why he focused like a laser on improbable political goals.
Frank Church, who believes he knows Glendening almost as well as anyone, struggles for words.
"He had an ambition and drive," he begins, using words constantly associated with Glendening. Finally he gives up. "It's a mystery," he says.
In trying to forget a past that was bad, Glendening has left even his friends wondering how he made his future so good.
Metro Resource Director Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company