Erwin H. Mack, R.I.P. – an homage

I don’t actually remember when I first met Erwin Mack. Likely it was in his capacity as executive director of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority (“CDA”), and I was a newly christened city council member. In the intervening 15 years I came to know an extraordinary man.  

When I first met Erwin Mack I don’t actually remember. Likely it was in his capacity as executive director of the CDA, the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority, and I was a newly christened city council member. 

In the intervening 14 years I came to know an extraordinary man.  

I think his extraordinariness came from the combination of Erwin’s leadership in the Seventh Day Adventist Church’s Potomac Conference and his thoroughly secular understanding of the world of small business and government bureaucracy.

Yet this barely explains the man. While passionately serious in his work, many will remember Erwin’s ready smile and gently teasing sense of humor, which helped disarm many, shall we say, who were good at saying no. This didn’t mean a “no” got converted to a “yes”, but it always opened doors and kept them open.

A case in point were various supplications Erwin and I made to State Highway Administration’s District 3 engineer to build sidewalks and improve traffic safety on Carroll Avenue in front of Takoma Academy in my ward. We got nowhere. Always gracious, these meetings gave new meaning to the word futility that, regrettably, has outlasted Erwin. 

Because I represented the heavily commercialized Ward Six and had a background in redevelopment, Erwin and I found ourselves working on numerous projects, most of which related to SDA church properties. 

Erwin died April 13, 2023 at age 91, bringing an end to Sylvia’s and Erwin’s 69-year marriage. His passing is a great loss to the greater Takoma Park community.

He was a Korean War veteran and he had many interests. Erwin was by any measure a high energy person to his last days, sure proof that the difference between “youth-ful” and being “old-ful” has little to do with a number. 

To the rear of his Takoma Park home in the Kilmarock neighborhood just across the city line stands a two-story garage. The lower level houses his restoration workshop and his famous Model T Ford, one of the earliest production models, circa 1909. He and Sylvia transported it in a special carrier across the United States for Model T excursions. Takoma’s Independence Day parade invariably featured his antique that I was lucky enough — and a wee bit scared — to ride in. Scared because making the steep grade up Grant Avenue to the parade’s assembly area felt like “The Little Engine That Could.” But Erwin knew how to coax it to the top.

Upstairs finds Erwin’s wood-working shop with sawdust everywhere and filled with planers, drill presses, power saws, chisels, and racks of hardwood varieties. He frequently gave pieces of his handywork as gifts to colleagues and friends. 

From my secular observations, the SDA church firmly believes in service to the larger community, especially the needy, and counts on God’s grace in finding the right path.

I won’t attempt to speak to Erwin’s faith work as Senior Elder in the Potomac Conference. But what I do know was his success in helping to bring to the table the senior leaders of Adventist Health Services, Adventist Hospital, and Adventist University, as well as the Potomac Conference’s overseers of its three Adventist schools in Takoma Park. I was honored to get to know these people and gain their trust, which for instance, enabled Mayor Bruce Williams, myself, and fellow councilmembers to have extended, productive discussions over the future of the hospital. 

Erwin balanced his faith work and civic work by gaining trust from seemingly everyone. In our private conversations I was often surprised by his candor and openness regarding the inner workings of the SDA’s institutional leadership and proclivities. Simply put, he was helpful in getting others to be helpful.

At heart Erwin was a problem solver. But at the same time, he had little tolerance for the Conference’s sometimes slow moving and indecisive bureaucracy. Over two years, he and I worked hand in hand with a study group and the city planning staff (namely Roz Grigsby) to convert the SDA-owned, 3-story, gutted office building (next to the Jiffy Lube) into a small business or arts incubator for minority businesses.

My vision was a low-cost way to redeem a forlorn building and help the SDA to make it serve an economic goal. Potomac Conference execs voted enthusiastically for the concept, agreeing with the city to split the $28,000 cost of an engineering and cost analysis. The study showed it would be expensive but would provide space for maybe twenty start-ups. Alas, the Conference suddenly abandoned its commitment and its willingness to share the study’s costs. Erwin was also mystified. (It remains vacant.)

In 1987, Erwin, then owner of Denis Sleep Shop in the Takoma Langley Shopping Center, led the formation of the CDA in cooperation with the city of Takoma Park and Prince George’s County. A new Maryland law helped to instigate it. Originally structured to encompass the PG side of the Crossroads intersection, political skullduggery (according to Erwin) sank PG’s participation. Thus, the CDA ended up serving only the Takoma Park side.

For 25 years until 2012, Erwin single-handedly (with the guidance of its board) made it his day job looking after the needs of over one hundred small businesses and property owners in the Crossroads. The CDA’s legality has always depended on the City Council’s periodic reauthorization.

But this did not deter Erwin Mack from crossing swords (which I witnessed) with the city manager or the SHA in solving problems. A highly visible legacy today is the wrought iron fences in the medians of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. The fences were not installed for aesthetics sake, but to reduce the alarming deaths of jay walkers, which was achieved. 

Erwin and I together also slogged through his thankless assignment (by the Potomac Conference) to take charge of the John Nevins Andrews school closure, find a buyer for the site and merge the students into what would become the Takoma Academy Preparatory School. There were more than a few actors who ultimately contributed to or frustrated the effort. We entertained the Baltimore based Children’s Guild Monarch Academy as a possible buyer, among others.

In 2002, Mayor Kate Stewart issued a Mayoral Proclamation honoring Erwin Mack for his decades of service to the city and declaring Erwin and Sylvia honorary citizens of Takoma Park.

Erwin Mack was perhaps many things to different people. To me he was trustworthy friend I could count on, full of good ideas and good humor. Always willing to sit down and talk at the IHOP. Always happy to make new acquaintances. Driven by a deep commitment to his faith, he was always a gentleman who never used a curse word and rarely any kind of pejoratives. He was inspirational and a man I looked up to. That he is gone is hard to accept.

When Erwin stepped down from executive director of the CDA, he asked me to arrange a farewell party at Wilkinson Hall for his friends, which I did, and many people spoke. When I retired from the City Council in 2017, Erwin presented me in front of the congregation with the Sligo Seventh-Day Adventist Church Caring Heart Award for 2017.

I would like to honor his legacy by proposing the city change the name of Merrimac Drive to Erwin H Mack Way. 

The one block Merrimac Drive leads to two SDA schools, plus the Spanish SDA Church and the Washington DC Ethiopian SDA Church. Just two businesses have Merrimac addresses: Campeon Pollo a la Brasa and a 7-Eleven. This should be easy to do. 

One thought on “Erwin H. Mack, R.I.P. – an homage

  1. Hi Fred,

    Thank you for your homage to Erwin Mack. I had not known of Erwin’s death and am very sorry to hear of his passing. I met Erwin in the late 1980’s when he was organizing the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority (CDA). I was an early member of the CDA Board and the CDA Appeal Panel until my law firm moved from the Crossroads Building to Carroll Avenue. Even after our office moved from the CDA area, I continued to do some (pro bono) legal work for the CDA. (Erwin was a hard person to refuse and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. 😊)

    The last time I saw Erwin was several years ago at my law firm’s open house and we chatted about his life and teaching career in California, his Model T Ford, and a myriad of other subjects. He was a one-of-a-kind special person and will be greatly missed.

    I like your idea of changing the name of Merrimac Drive to Erwin Mack Way (personally, I’d leave off the “H” middle initial). If I can help with this campaign, please let me know.

    Linda S. Perlman

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