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Every picture tells a story. Of Catonsville.
By David Sattler   - 01/01/2006

The View from Catonsville

If you had three boys — one, an overly active first grader, whom you were home schooling — four cats, one husband, one house and one mountain of laundry, what would you do?

Marsha Wight Wise answered an ad to write a book about Catonsville.

“I lost,” she noted, “tons of sleep.”

It all started last October, when the Hunting Ridge resident saw an article about a publishing company, Arcadia Publishing, that was seeking an author to write a book about the Catonsville area. “I sent an email off to Arcadia but didn’t hold out much hope of getting a chance at the authorship,” Wise recalled. “They replied almost immediately saying I was the first one to respond.”

Although Wise had never lived in Catonsville she knew the area well, having spent two years driving to what was then Catonsville Community College (now CCBC-Catonsville) on South Rolling Road, “and I took a different route to school every time.”

She fell in love with the houses and the area while earning an A.A. degree in business administration, before enrolling in the University of Baltimore to earn a degree in corporate communications.

Her career afforded her the opportunity to both research and write, skills that wound up being invaluable when writing the Catonsville book, which is 128 pages of photos, 207 in all, many never before published, along with stories about everything from “the legend of Champayne’s Gold still buried where Westchester Elementary School is located today,” which one son wants to look for one night (a ghost is part of the story), to “the story about the monkeys at Homewood.”

There is, however, one story which is not in the book, a story the first-time author is keeping for a future book: “it’s a mystery involving an old family, a prominent building and Spring Grove patients, and I’m not going to say any more than that.”

But first in line is a book similar to the Catonsville tome, this one about Ellicott City, also commissioned by Arcadia. Wise currently has 366 photos for the book, and soon will begin the difficult process of choosing which to publish. Her deadline is January 23, and the book will be published in the spring.

Her first book was four months of working nights and weekends. When husband John, a computer consultant, would walk in the door from work, he’d jump into homework, dinner, bath time and bed time, while Wise would grab her laptop and head off for a quiet spot in the house.

“John,” she noted, “was an absolute peach. For four months he did a lot of laundry.”

Adding to the chaos was her oldest son, “maybe the only child to ever be thrown out of first grade.” Wise home schooled him while the family searched for a solution to his ADD (Attention Deficit Syndrome), which was the reason he’d been bounced from first grade. (This year, with solutions in hand, he’s back in school.)

So what does it take to write a book in a house filled with children? Lots of coffee, which would be the obvious answer, and one which is not so obvious: pistachio nuts, “the five-pound bags from Sam’s Club,” natural, not dyed red, as a midnight (and often post-midnight) snack.

The other key to the process was her laptop computer and portable scanner. “Have scanner, will travel,” was her motto, logging many miles through the streets of Catonsville and beyond to scan photos for the book, many of which the owners might have been loath to let out of their sight.

Although the book covers everything from prominent families and local landmarks to events and everyday life over 100+ years, one feature struck the author: “the many insane asylums in Catonsville.”

“Ellicott City,” she said, “seemed to have the most funeral homes. Catonsville had the most insane asylums.” If there’s a connection, she hasn’t found it.

An old brochure for one asylum, though, “made it seem very pleasant,” with promises of quiet, stress-free days and a caring environment.

Not that Wise is considering moving to one any time soon. In fact, she considers her life as an author very privileged. Although she received no advance for either book, and will see royalty checks “which certainly won’t make me rich” every six months, “I know what I write is going to be published.,” something many writers can’t claim.

She also, in the course of researching the book, rekindled her enthusiasm for genealogy and history — she’s a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Maryland Historical Society, The Baltimore Architecture Foundation, and the Historical Society of Catonsville — and has traced her own family back to colonial times, discovering a distant connection to royalty.

Will she work on another book after her Ellicott City publication goes to the printer? Right now she’s concentrating on promoting the Catonsville book, with book signings and area appearances regularly scheduled. But as long as the pistachio supply holds out, Wise thinks she might have found a new career.

For more information, visit her website, www.catonsvillebook.com

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