Welcome to the Hamilton Home for the Happy," said the raspy-voiced woman, speaking from the doorway of her unpretentious split-level home. "Step over the tricycles and watch out for the dog behind you. He'll be hurt if you don't give him the proper welcome."
It could have been fairly easy for Virginia Hamilton and her husband, D.C. Superior Court Judge Eugene Hamilton, to bask comfortably in a high-powered social life.
But the Hamiltons have forged a different life style for themselves, raising seven children, two of them adopted, while providing temporary foster care during the past 10 years for at least 25 children -- some of them severely handicapped -- who have been placed with them by the Montgomery County Department of Social Services.
As foster parents, the Hamiltons accept all kinds of children, particularly infants with health problems, until they can be placed in permanent homes. They also accept abused and neglected children whose parents have been ordered to undergo counseling for a specified period.
The Hamiltons live in the northern reaches of Silver Spring, in an area that is the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings: wide open fields, country stores, apple cider stands, and several horse farms. It's a softer setting than the courtroom of "Mean Gene" Hamilton -- as he is known at Superior Court for his tough sentences. For Ginny Hamilton, their home is the stage for a role she considers in many ways equal to the judge's, where her decisions carry the weight of love.
"Well, don't just stand there, sweetheart, come on into the command center," she bellows, wiping two damp noses and a pair of grubby hands. Five of their seven children and two foster children currently live with them. Her command center is a country kitchen with a large round table, lots of counter space and cabinets, plenty of apples within range of small hands, and one pint-sized body stuffed halfway into the refrigerator.
"Pay no attention to the dirty diapers," she says. "Frankly, I think they add character to this room, don't you? Eric, how did you get so dirty? This boy has real talent. David, get out of the icebox!"
Virginia Hamilton is hard at work at a job she loves. Motherhood suits her, she says; interviews about her life unsettle her. She moves around the command center issuing soft-spoken directives and attending to chores.
She looks as if she could handle a space shot with ease. A thousand and one requests fly past her and she doesn't miss any. She handles them all with a healthy sprinkling of wry wit and charm.
Among the turning points in her life, two incidents are prominent. The first, in 1970, was when Hamilton was appointed to a superior court judgeship, and the second, even more far-reaching than the first, was an introduction to "Mr. Jones."
The judge called home one day and asked his wife to clean up the command center because he was bringing home a very special visitor, Mr. Jones. She laughs when she remembers the incident: "I thought it was some kind of highfalutin judge or something so I got the kids ready and put on some steaks hoping this would be good enough for Mr. Jones."
As it turned out, Mr. Jones was about two feet tall and extraordinarily fond of cookies and milk. He was a vagrant child authorities had found wandering around the Smithsonian Institution. Since there were no caseworkers available, the judge brought him home for several days.
"I told Gene I was going to kill him," she said. "But that was the first time we became foster parents . . . . The experience has enriched us all."
Hamilton is the daughter of a Wilberforce, Ohio, minister who became a college professor, and a school-teacher mother. She and the judge were married after they met at the University of Illinois ("We fell in love on sight: Stars! Rockets!") and had one child and another on the way before she graduated with an English degree in 1958.
"Gene finished law school and we eventually settled in Washington, where he went to work for the Justice Department," she said. "I picked up a master's degree in special education, we had more kids, and I taught special education in the District public schools."
She hesitates to mention which children were adopted. "They are sensitive about the adoption question," she said, "so we will leave that alone."
There are two "fosters" running around the command center calling Ginny Hamilton "Ma.". She says the average length of time infants without health problems stay with her is between three and six months. Other children with emotional or physical handicaps sometimes stay a year or more.
"I've seen all kinds of health problems; in fact, sometimes I think they send special cases here hoping I can discover the problem--and I usually do. It just takes time and constant attention," she said.
Though the Hamiltons' foster children have suffered from hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy, gastrointestinal disorders and septal defects (holes in the heart), Virginia Hamilton says the worst cases are those of neglected children.
"Believe it or not, as long as you stay in close contact with good pediatricians the worst medical cases can be handled in the home, they do not have to be institutionalized. But the neglected children, the ones with deep emotional scars, tear me up," she said.
"Some of them come in here, they won't talk to you, can't express themselves in sentences. I've even caught some of them hoarding food under their mattresses. Peanut butter sandwiches hidden all around the house. And it could all be avoided if their parents cared or if they knew how to raise children. I tell you, my own children have grown tremendously because of all this," she said.
Montgomery County's adoption supervisor said the Hamiltons have provided "consistently good care" to their foster children. "We need more people like the Hamiltons, particularly since a number of people think foster parents are only in it for the money," observed Jean Royer, supervisor of adoptions and home findings for the county's Department of Social Services. "The Hamiltons are really caring, giving people."
The Hamiltons' natural children also praise their mother for her easy loving rapport with all youngsters.
"There has always been a baby in my home since I can remember," said the oldest child, Jane Hamilton Evanzz, 26, a registered nurse at Children's Hospital. "A lot of my child-care experience has come from my experience at home and watching Mother. I'm sure that I would not have the appreciation for the job that I have now if I did not have this experience in my home."
Another Hamilton, Steven, 23, a senior at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, said: "There is no question in any of our minds that environment does make the difference. When some of the older 'fosters' first arrive, they won't talk or they just stand around. But after two weeks with Mom and the rest of us they blossom like flowers. It's fascinating to watch . . . ."
Virginia Hamilton says the experience has also affected the judge, whom she describes as "a loving father and a deeply caring man who happens to be a judge."
Several District lawyers interviewed said Hamilton looks quite menacing on the bench and that years ago they had dubbed him "Mean Gene Hamilton" because he "hits the long ball" (hands out long sentences) when necessary. But they also described him as a caring judge, whose concern for children becomes evident in juvenile court.
The judge laughs off his nickname and acknowledges that juvenile court cases can worry him. "I look at some of the children that come before me and I see a little bit of my own children in each one of them," he said. ". . . I will go to great lengths to make sure every juvenile case I handle is thoroughly researched before I make any decisions."
The neglected children he sees concern him particularly, the judge said. "The real crime is when I face a child in court whose entire act is based on a desperate need to be loved. His whole record is screaming out, 'Somebody love me, please.' That's when I shake my head; the whole scenario might have been avoided with proper parental guidance."
Virginia Hamilton knows when her husband is facing difficult judicial questions and says this strengthens her resolve to make his home life as stable and as loving as possible. But there are moments when the easy comradery of family life is broken.
"When the 'fosters' leave we all line up and cry. There is no way to avoid the pain everytime," she said.
On the other hand, when a caseworker calls with a new baby, she said, "We all get excited. Gene goes out and buys a new blanket or toy. They must start out with something of their own, you know. I will never understand parents who neglect their children."
As the activity in her command center rises to a fever pitch, Virginia Hamilton resumes control.
"Look at that face, look at that mouth," she says to one of her children. "Have you been eating the yard? Jeremiah, you need a haircut today; you are beginning to look like a shaggy dog."