Sometimes Michael T. Rose forgets. He'll be at one of his many zoning hearings or civic association meetings, touting the features of the luxury town houses he wants to build. The meeting ends, and Rose, without thinking, will simply lean forward to stand up.
"Once in a while," he said in a neutral voice, "I completely forget about the wheelchair."
Rose, 43, is one of a few top developers in Prince George's County, currently a center of development. Others have announced plans for massive multimillion-dollar projects, but Rose's Laurel Lakes community -- a $300 million complex in the northern part of the county -- is the first major development to take shape.
For Rose, Laurel Lakes represents by far his biggest effort as a builder and developer. More important, it is a symbol of his personal comeback. Ten years ago, a troubled employe walked into the then up-and-coming developer's office, grabbed him in a bear hug and shot him in the spine. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
But Rose, an intense man with cool blue eyes and monogrammed shirts, prefers to play down his disability. He talks instead about the new "mansion-plexes" he is building in Bowie, a country club in Anne Arundel County with a 27-hole golf course, and a development project in Bowie with a riding center and equestrian theme. He likes to point out that in Prince George's alone his various projects are adding $1 billion -- "a nice round number" -- to the county tax base.
"The injury has not slowed Michael down at all -- everybody watches for that," said lawyer George Brugger, whose Seabrook firm represents Rose and about 20 other developers. "I've heard people say, he's harder to deal with now, he's tougher, more irascible. I don't think that's true. He's not any different as I can see, and that is amazing. I've never found one drop of self-pity in Michael Rose."
Rose's company, Michael T. Rose Associates, is in the MTR building at the Laurel Lakes Executive Park. There are Rose touches everywhere: the twin fountains added to the $3.5 million lake because "it needed a little more bounce"; the lack of unsightly utility lines, dropped underground for $350,000 "so people would have a nice, clean view of Laurel"; curbs that can accommodate wheelchairs.
Several years ago, when the 276-acre tract for Laurel Lakes was up for city zoning approval, Rose was approached before the meeting by a Laurel resident in a wheelchair.
"He said, 'We've got to make sure this developer is sensitive to the handicapped -- he's a pirate and he's not sensitive at all,' " Rose recalled with a laugh. "When the man got up to make his statement, he said, 'Wait a minute, you're Michael Rose? I guess what I was going to say isn't going to make much sense, is it?' . . . . We just don't advertise the fact that I'm in a wheelchair."
Originally, Rose hoped to become a mathematics professor. Born in Chicago, he moved at 13 with his divorced mother to the Los Angeles area; there, he was the kind of industrious teen-ager who was always organizing friends into lawn-mowing and gardening services.
At 18, while studying at Cal State-Northridge, he took a real estate job. It proved a good match. "I was persistent," he said. "I always had a goal. I would focus on that goal, complete it, then refocus."
He began by selling houses; in a few years, he was national vice president with the Larwin real estate firm, traveling 100,000 miles a year. By 1975, Rose, who had moved to Bethesda with his wife Carol and two sons, decided to go into business for himself.
His first venture, the Montpelier Oaks town houses in Laurel, was initially hooted. Who would pay what was then a relatively steep price for a luxury home in Laurel, then not a terribly popular address? But the 120 homes sold, and Rose, always very detail-oriented, began a pattern of "setting new market standards for the area." He brought skylights and cathedral ceilings to Laurel.
When he was shot, he was a classic workaholic who never took a vacation, working 12-hour days, seven-day weeks. When Carol Rose learned that her husband had been taken to the hospital, "I thought he'd had a heart attack," she said. "It just blew my mind away -- why would somebody want to shoot him?"
The employe who shot Rose, Paul Lloyd, then 28, was a construction engineer who had worked with the firm for three years and had sometimes visited in the Rose home.
"If Michael wanted five houses, Paul wanted 10, to make Michael proud of him," said Ann Stone, who has worked with Rose for 13 years. "He looked up to Michael . . . . Who knows why it happened? We never talked about it afterwards. It just happened."
Lloyd was found not guilty by reason of insanity and ended up spending several months in a mental hospital. "If you can shoot a president of the United States," Rose said dryly, referring to John Hinckley Jr.'s assault on President Reagan, "you can shoot a local builder."
The next two years were the darkest of Rose's life. "I almost went under," he said. "I had hundreds of houses under construction, and there I was paralyzed."
He was hospitalized for six months, in and out of the hospital for another six months. He had to relearn many things. But from the beginning, he and his wife decided to take a tough approach to his injury.
"The night he was shot," Carol Rose said, "the doctor turned to me and asked me, 'Do you want your husband back? Then don't treat him any differently.'
"I remember one time they were teaching him how to dress himself. He was trying to pull on his pants and he hit his head on the bed hard. I started to get up and go to him but the nurse pushed me back. I saw that look he gave me, but it was right. It made him a much better person. Michael will go on, and he will survive out there."
For Rose, the hardest part was "trying to convince the banks not to pull the plug on somebody who was handicapped." Stone said the firm initially lost a few of its subcontractors because "they couldn't deal with somebody in a wheelchair."
But Rose threw himself back into work with his old intensity, although he cut back his work schedule and became heavily involved with charities. The development projects followed. His company, begun a dozen years ago with a staff of four, now employs 50 people.
"We forget he's in a chair," Stone said, "except when it's raining and somebody has to run out to the car and get an umbrella.
"And I guess we are all aware that we work for Michael and we can't let anybody cheat him," she said. "He can't see what's going on in the field anymore. Our antenna is always up."
From his office window, Rose looks down on the $30,000 sculpture -- a hammock swung between two palm trees -- that he donated to the City of Laurel after it refused his gift of tennis courts.
"They said the park was meant for something called 'passive recreation,' and tennis wouldn't do," he said. "That sculpture is titled 'Suspended Animation,' but guess what I call it?"
Rose refers to Laurel Lakes, which officially opened last year, as "a synergistic community." It features offices and a 475,000-square-foot shopping center with maroon and dark-green awnings, and eventually it will have 1,800 homes. He is proud that a poll of Laurel residents taken by a local weekly newspaper last year named the development "the best thing that ever happened to Laurel."
"Michael was the first developer who came along and saw the area for what it was," said Dani Duniho, mayor of the town of 16,000. "He took the first jump of faith for megabucks development, and it paid off handsomely."
These days, Rose has a new vision -- he'd like to transform nearby Bowie into "the soccer capital of America," if only the reluctant mayor and Town Council would approve his plan for 11 soccer fields. He predicts a few heated meetings on the issue.
"I'm not a politician," he said. "When I think somebody is wrong, I say so in very strong words. And once people know me, they yell at me the same as anybody else. Wheelchair or not."