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. 

In Praise of Mr. Raskin

Our Congressman, Jamie Raskin, has been in the news lately, if you haven’t noticed. I am certain that most everyone in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District has noticed. Possibly most Marylanders have too, as an increasing number of Americans across the country awaken to his influential defense of our democracy.

I write about Jamie for two reasons. I want readers better to know who he is. And as an older guy I feel a paternalistic pride for a man I know personally (as many do In Takoma Park), who has emerged onto the national political stage. 

Benefit Corporations and Legal Marijuana

For those who don’t know, Jamie Raskin served for eleven years in the Maryland Senate representing the southern section of Montgomery County close to Washington DC. He rose to leadership, and became recognized for his progressive efforts to legalize marijuana, repeal the death penalty, support same sex marriage and making Maryland in 2010 the first state to establish benefit corporations. After getting his magna cum laude J.D. degree from Harvard Law he was for some 25 years a professor of constitutional law at American University.

Marcus Raskin and the Boston Five

Possibly most important for understanding who Jamie is, his father was the late Marcus G. Raskin, a lawyer himself. He co-founded The Institute for Policy Studies in 1963, a progressive DC think tank, became a staunch opponent of the Vietnam war, led teach-ins against the war and was a member of the Boston Five — Rev. Wm Sloan Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michael Ferber and Mitchell Goodwin – who were all indicted for conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft (they were acquitted). The senior Raskin was involved with Daniel Ellsberg in bringing the Pentagon Papers to publication, according to Wikipedia. He was active in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and in the years following was a prolific writer, teacher, and philosopher on social causes, nuclear disarmament, national security and labor union organizing.  

Jamie’s upbringing, however, wasn’t what got him elected to state office or in 2016 to Congress. It was not as though he needed to tout his educational credentials. (Inside the proverbial Washington Beltway scads of folks carry impressive credentials.) It had a lot to do with sheer affection for the guy. In any case, there didn’t seem to be much doubt that his election was a natural next step in his political leadership. 

Jamie Raskin and the author in 2013

What got Jamie sent on his way to Congress is probably pretty obvious to those who know him. Locally to everyone he is just Jamie. Which means he’s accessible and disarming. The man you meet is who he is. There are no pretenses. There is no “different side” of him: a trait that bedevils so many nationally ambitious politicians who wear different faces depending on who has the money. When Jamie greets you, smiles or puts an arm over your shoulders, it means what you want it to mean.

Thomas Paine

Among the things that make Jamie special as person, I’ve noticed, is when he enters the room the space becomes energized. Enthusiasm and buoyancy take over. When he takes the microphone, the place become hushed with anticipation. Jamie has a way with words that most can only envy. His wit and humor shine through. He speaks with earnestness and sureness about his ideas on the law, and the nuances of the Constitution, placing it in today’s context and sprinkling in apt quotes from the Founders like Thomas Paine, one of his favorites. His thoughts seem to come from a deep place: maybe from the dinner table of his youth, or perhaps from his years in front of the classroom. 

Perhaps there is nothing new to be said about democracy that hasn’t previously been said by Paine, Locke, de Tocqueville, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, and others. But Jamie talks in the context of today’s threats – Trumpism, the Big Lie and voter suppression — in ways that both young people and pre-baby boomers can relate to. Jamie brings a fresh way of understanding core principles. Too often, national politicians speak in platitudes or use catch phrases to trigger applause. They use code words with supporters to avoid recrimination and to obfuscate, or they just talk from their ego.

Jamie intuitively understands the potency of semantics and syntax to cut to the bone and make people think about issues and ideas in a fresh way. (I have found myself saying: I wish I could have said that.) It’s really just command of the English language like few in Congress have ever possessed. 

Nancy Pelosi

When Jamie Raskin won election in 2016, there was no question in my mind Jamie would quickly, like cream, rise to the top. And he has. Extraordinary political circumstances confronting Congress have brought Jamie to the fore. Perhaps more rapidly than even he imagined. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to her credit, quickly recognizing Jamie’s attributes and fortitude, tapped him as the House’s Lead Impeachment Manager for Trump’s second impeachment. 

This appointment came mere days after Jamie and his wife Sarah Bloom Raskin tragically lost their son Tommy Raskin to suicide as a consequence, reportedly, of serious depression at the age of 25. Regardless of the cause, I will say this: only parents who have lost a child can comprehend this particular grief and the enduring agony. Jamie has been quoted saying that Nancy Pelosi’s handing him the job of lead impeachment manager, was a godsend, even though this was only five days after Tommy’s burial. 

As is well known now, Jamie Raskin not only rose to the occasion, but was eloquent in arguing the case. That it fell on deaf Republican ears in the Senate speaks solely to the unfortunate state of the Republican party and not to the merits of the case. 

Select Committee to Investigate January 6

When in July 2021 Speaker Pelosi formed the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, she included Jamie in the nine-member panel. The committee continues its investigations, frequently making headlines. Jamie regularly appears on news shows. Given its uphill struggle to ferret out truths, the Select Committee seems to be the equivalent of Ukraine taking on and besting Putin’s wannabe Russian empire. The Select Committee keeps drilling down into the roots of Trumpists’ lies despite Republican’s juvenile efforts to ignore, discredit, and ridicule its diligence.

If our fragile democracy and republican form of government manage to survive, it will in part be due to the work of this Select Committee, the likes of Jamie Raskin, Liz Cheney, Adam Kitzinger and others who have the rare courage and the ability to speak truth to power. 

At critical tipping points in America’s history, certain individuals have seemingly materialized, perhaps by the grace of God, to help lead our country to a higher moral ground. This is one of those moments, and I think Jamie Raskin is one of those extraordinary individuals. I feel fortunate to know him. In all honesty I sleep better at night because of Jamie Raskin and the part he’s playing. I believe Jamie has and is making a difference. None of us knows, of course, whether the forces of autocracy, duplicity and shrinking liberties will win out. 

A Person of the Year

When Jamie first ran for Congress, he stated his ambition wasn’t to be in the political center, but to be in the moral center. This past December 2021 David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, named Jamie Raskin as “A Person of the Year.” He describes him as “an individual who embodies both the tragedy and resilience of our time.” Remnick interviewed Raskin about his efforts to write his new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy as a way to honor his son and to try to alleviate the depths of his grief.


I have noticed that when snow is in the forecast, it creates a unique level of anxiety among folks. It’s almost laughable. People want to know when it’ll start, how long it will last, how much will we get. Will the schools close; should they close; how bad will the roads be? Postponements and cancellations? Will we run out of milk or toilet paper? On and on.

Kids get excited. Parents have mixed feelings, as we try to deal with the quandary of what’s coming. Whether we welcome it or dread it, there’s anxiety and maybe excitement. I have also noticed our greyhound Willow isn’t fazed by the snow. She doesn’t “know” snow. Open the door, out she goes to do her business and then comes back in. No worries.

New Hampshire Avenue 2016

When I was little boy in Baltimore a long time ago, there were no weather forecasts. TV was in its infancy. The newspaper had a crude weather map. Almost always, snow came as a surprise. I vividly remember the times my dad would wake me in the morning and say, “Guess what? Look out the window. It’s snowing.” I would jump out of bed instantly lathered in joy. If the snow was coming down hard, there’d be no school. But just in case, my parents would turn on the radio and listen for school closing information. 

Dad might have to put the snow chains on the tires to get to work. (Plowing didn’t happen.) The steps and sidewalk would have to be shoveled. For older kids that meant there was money to be made. Mom would dig out my black rubber snow galoshes with the metal clips along with double socks, a second shirt, mittens and earmuffs, out into the whiteness to find my friends. The day was mine until the sun went down.

Today, TV forecasters have become our gurus, like faith healers. For them it’s a peak moment. They are pumped and so are their viewers. Our preoccupation with weather is proven in the plenitude of weather apps that offer data and predictions far into future and all over the planet. 

All this science and yet they sometimes get it grievously wrong, as we’ve seen with erroneous snow forecasts that cause schools to close needlessly. 

So I wonder, what did our grandparents do long before all this technology?  Clearly, they managed and simply lived with whatever happened. Sailors and farmers looked at the sky, sniffed the air, felt the wind and acted accordingly. If a summer rain arrived unexpectedly, my mother rushed out and pulled the laundry off the clothes lines. 

At a more fundamental level, the Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of our determination to control natural forces that have the upper hand. Uncertainty has hung over us for two years. For scientists it’s been a moving target. As research advances, guidance has changed or even reversed. Our collective response has been confusion, frustration, fear and impatience. 

This boils down to the human race’s incessant efforts to know the future. One reason for this, of course, there’s great wealth to be gained if you are good at predicting the future. Think stock traders, gamblers, tarot card readers and economists. (It’s not for nothing economics has been called the dismal science.) But the big reason is our need to have control over our lives — or, at least, feel like we do — to protect everything that is dear to us, to be able to plan our lives and avoid calamity.

There are some ironies here. As science, technology and medical advances have extended our life spans, shrunken the world, and created amazing efficiencies in our homes and workplaces, so have our anxieties swollen about losing these things. While we want cleverer and more efficient technologies, at the same time we get more frustrated and angrier when the slightest thing goes awry. And it often does. The snow doesn’t fall when it should, or it does when it shouldn’t. The battery on your car’s remote key dies, Amazon’s delivery is a no-show, your map app steers you wrong, passwords are lost or don’t work, unwanted emails, scams and spams intrude, and the ever-present risk of identity theft.

Have you left home without your cell phone? It’s means you’ve cut yourself off from your family, work associates, loved ones and pretty much the whole world.

Have you tried to get tickets for a sports event? It’s nerve wracking. Remember tickets you could hold in your hand and keep as souvenirs? They are gone. They only exist digitally on your phone. As for movie tickets, now we must select seats like we’re taking a flight to L.A. Have you tried to call your doctor lately, and have a live conversation with her or him? Remember when you could do that, and just go to their office? 

My point is none of these problems and frustrations existed in my parents’ time or even when I was a young man. Life was tactile then. Now it’s all digital. You touched a thing and then you bought it. On meeting a person you touched hands, looked in their eyes and felt their aura. Things worked out. People coped. 

It’s tempting to refer to the past as “simpler times” as though people were more innocent and naïve “back in the day.” But that would be wrong. Living has never been simple. People have always been complex, and society filled with tensions and disagreement. 

The difference is that the digital world is confusing and complicated. Things that used to be easy to learn to do are no longer easy. A case in point. Last summer I decided to ditch our ISP and to change our email addresses we’d had since forever to save money. My advice? Don’t try this. Six months later, I am still trying to stamp out my old email. Like crabgrass it keeps reappearing. Our new TV access protocol still baffles my wife. There are hundreds of channels, but we only watch a couple dozen. Why does It need to be so hard? Who benefits from this? 

This needless complexity is creating a gulf between the young and the old, between the well off and the poor, between those who access the digital world of computers, broadband, software, and apps and those who cannot because they are trying to feed themselves, pay the landlord and get medical care. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think ATMs are wonderful. Put in a card, out comes money. It never errs. Credit cards are great too. It’s neat I can Facetime my son in France, and I can pay bills electronically. My car has 110,000 miles and it still runs like a top. (My dad traded in cars every two years.) 

But what has it gotten us? In 2022 we have no more assurance about the future than did our forefathers. The Pandemic has reminded us that nature still rules. That we can take all the precautions, but know we are plain lucky to have escaped infection. 

Global warming threatens us and suddenly, our planet Earth feels small and vulnerable. Climate change is an existential threat like nothing in my lifetime since maybe Khrushchev’s threatening atomic warheads in Cuba signified the end of the world.  

We have epidemiologists, climatologists, stock and commodity brokers, financial planners, actuaries, insurers, pollsters, news analysts, historians, fortune tellers, diviners and astrologists — all telling us what may lie ahead and assigning probabilities and dates. We sure keep a lot of people of busy in our collective efforts to guarantee our tomorrows and build our expectations. 

They all serve our purposes, I suppose. But in the final analysis, bad things happen, good things happen. We hug those we love, weep for those we cannot help. But ultimately, our dog Willow has it right. She doesn’t know it’s going to snow. If there’s snow, she pays little notice, and just goes out to do her business.

We need to do that too. It’s time to lighten up, accept what we cannot control.

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but wanting to control it.

Kahlil Gibran

Don’t worry, be happy.

Bobby McFerrin