Will Smith, now a fourth-grader at Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, had a brainstorm in the fall of 2001: If walking were Maryland's official state exercise, it could encourage people to do "enough to keep their waists maintained." Plus, he figured, people might get to see more of their neighbors.
Now Will, 9, is pushing his perambulatory proposal in the General Assembly. His top selling point: "It's hard to say 'hi' when you're going 60 miles an hour."
Don't confuse walking with jousting, Maryland's official state sport. Or with square dancing, the state folk dance. The state drink -- milk -- might taste nice after a brisk walk. In some locales, a stroll could offer close looks at the state flower (the black-eyed Susan) or the state insect (the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly). You also could walk your Chesapeake Bay retriever, the official state dog breed.
The subject is close to Will's heart because his family hasn't owned a car his entire life. His father, Bill Smith, is legally blind. His mother, Kathleen Carr-Smith, grew up in Philadelphia, went to college in Washington and never felt she needed an automobile so she never learned to drive.
"If we have to go somewhere too far to walk, we take a taxi, take the bus or take the Metro," Will said. "But usually we don't take the bus."
His dad said, "A taxi to downtown Washington is only $15" from the family's home in Silver Spring.
When Will appeared before the House Health and Government Operations Committee earlier this month to testify for his bill [sponsored by Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery)], he wore a black coat, blue tie with gray diamond flecks and a white shirt and gray pants. He said he hoped this legislative session would turn out differently from the previous one, when he and a slew of other youngsters stood up for a similar bill, which sought to add walking to Maryland's list of 19 official state symbols.
The measure failed, along with proposals to make apple oatmeal treats the official state cookie and the Patuxent River agate the official state gem.
By the time he finished addressing the committee -- telling members that "if more people in Maryland get out of their cars and off of their couches, we would all have a friendlier, happier, healthier home" -- Will had a good feeling about the bill's fate.
This year, he said, "the committee's nicer. First of all, the chairman from last year [is no longer on the committee]. . . . And also my dad thinks that last year, since there were so many kids, the representatives thought it was just a civics lesson, and they didn't need really to vote yes, because they thought it wouldn't do anything."
When Will isn't walking home from the school bus stop or sledding or reading through his favorite book of Greek myths, he said, he doesn't always walk for exercise.
"If it's a good day," he said, "I like to run. I'm a really fast runner. I'm best at long distances."
But he's still a big fan of walking. He has been joined in his legislative push by an array of groups, including the Girl Scouts of America, the American Heart Association and the Shape Up America! campaign, led by former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop.
Will has statistics on his side, according to his supporters: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Marylanders today, and the mortality rate in Maryland from coronary artery disease ranks in the top one-third in the nation. Regular walking, the supporters said, decreases the risks of heart disease and other illnesses.
If that message doesn't sway the lawmakers, Will said, that's fine. "Because me and my dad are just going to try again next year."