In Montgomery County, heartland of civic activism, badgering bureaucrats is as much a part of suburban life as thumping melons in the supermarket. Even arthritis, diabetes and sundry other infirmities of old age cannot completely stop a group of taxpayers who want county officials to do as they bid.
Thus it was with only mild surprise that Edward Daniels, a county transportation official in charge of Montgomery's Ride-On bus service, strolled out of his office in Rockville yesterday morning to find the secretarial pool packed with a crowd of civic activists who despite their average age of 80 were determined to be heard.
While previously alerted television camera crews and giggling secretaries looked on, 20 silver-haired senior citizens from Takoma Park, led by 91-year-old Myrtle Henrichsen who sewed tents in World War I, demanded to know why Daniels had refused to meet with their group, which has been trying to get a bus stop reestablished at a Langley Park shopping center since November.
By the end of the exchange of views, the citizens had extracted the bureaucrat's signature on a letter promising to have the bus stop established in three weeks (with just a couple of "contingencies") and they shook hands, clapped and shuffled downstairs to the cafeteria for lunch.
"We accomplished what we were after," said 80-year-old Alexander Fenwick, who has had to ferry his groceries across University Boulevard since the county moved the bus stop at the Hampshire-Langley shopping center across the highway a year ago. "I went right to the front so I could hear. In China during World War II I was in a plane and rockets went off and affected my hearing." Daniels, Fenwick said, treated them with respect, and most pronounced themselves satisfied except Myrtle Minton was still suspicious.
"He was too agreeable," said the 75-year-old former school teacher who grew up in a coal mining family in Harlan County, Ky. "I'll put it that way. You don't grow up in Harlan County without being a fighter."
Last fall, in best Montgomery fashion, the elderly activists organized a group with a catchy acronym -- Riders in Determined Effort, or RIDE -- after it became clear that something had to be done about the bus stop for the Hampshire Langley Shopping Center, which many elderly residents depend on for its supermarket.
The bus stop, which had been relocated across University Boulevard from the shopping center after several businesses had complained about the diesel fumes fouling their shops, was inconvenient and dangerous, they felt and it forced many people who had a hard time walking without a cane to scramble across the busy street and two parking lots.
After canvassing all the stores, and conferring with the owners of the shopping center, the group was convinced that all that stood in the way of restoring the bus stop to its former place was the county bureaucracy. They wanted to meet with Daniels, who had been sending one of his staff members to RIDE meetings, but he demurred.
"I don't think we were being unresponsive," said Daniels. Explaining why he had not met with the RIDE group, he said, "Perhaps it wasn't political, but they don't need to be convinced [the bus stop should be moved back]. It was the shopping center owners."
Facing a shot of problems that less venerable civic organizations are spared, the group chartered a bus and planned an unannounced visit to the transportation official's office in Rockville.
RIDE has over 100 members, but some have been transferred to nursing homes, and a few had died since the group organized. Some diabetics were afraid of missing lunch. One woman couldn't go because she had an allergic reaction to new medication.
Others "we just can't get interested," said 91-year-old Henrichsen. "They say they're too old. I was on the committee in Laurel to get the bus there. I nearly froze to death getting merchant signatures."
Al Scheer, 81 -- one of four badly outnumbered men -- decided to forgo a day at the racetrack to attend his first demonstration. Margeret Rodgers, 74, risked missing her two pet soap operas, "As the World Turns" and "The Guiding Light."
On the way over, and again on the way back, the elderly chatted happily, swapping tips on good places to get batteries for a hearing aid, and falling effortlessly into reminiscence.
"A woman is as old as she looks and a man is old when he stops looking," said Helen Aubertin, 83. "I don't mind telling my age a bit. I'm glad to have been around that long."
"We've been around a long time," Henrichsen said.
"It don't seem that long do it," Aubertin said.
As the women gabbed on, a trim-looking gentlemen in the back leaned over and said in a confidential whisper, "These ladies'll talk you to death."