LAUREL – To Shirley Tumlin, May 15, 1972, is more than the day a gunman shot then-presidential hopeful George Wallace in the parking lot of the Laurel Shopping Center.
To her, it is also the day that the peaceful town of Laurel changed forever.
“In those days, it was a small, safe town,” said Tumlin, who owns the Sunoco station near the site of the shooting. “Everybody knew everybody. It has changed and that was the beginning.”
Wallace, who died Sept. 13 in Alabama, was on a routine campaign stop in Laurel as part of his heated segregationist campaign for the Democratic nomination for president when he was gunned down by Arthur Bremer.
Wallace was left paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the shooting. Laurel, too, was never the same again.
“Laurel’s always been a really tight, low-crime community. You could leave your doors unlocked,” said James Collins, a public information officer for the Laurel Police Department.
But the shooting threw the peaceful suburb into shock, said Collins.
“To have a shooting of a presidential candidate was just so overwhelming,” he said. “It was a blow to everyone.”
Desmond Hamilton has only lived in Laurel for three years, but said the shooting is still discussed by residents of the town, which straddles the border of Howard and Prince George’s counties.
“People still talk about it, especially when they are around here [the shopping center],” he said.
Laurel Shopping Center today looks nothing like it did the day that Wallace was shot. Tumlin said her Sunoco station and the carpet store across Route 1 are the only stores left from that time.
On the spot where Wallace was shot, a NationsBank branch has been built.
Traffic whizzes by on Route 1, which runs next to the shopping center. On a recent sweltering afternoon, people rushed around the shopping center and across the baking asphalt parking lot as if nothing of importance ever occurred there.
But while the scenery has changed, the memory of that day has never fully faded for some residents.
Peggy Mitchell, a Laurel resident since 1939, was enjoying a stroll with her dog when she saw Wallace shot.
“I remember that he [Wallace] knocked the roses over when he fell and I think his wife threw herself on him,” said Mitchell.
Tumlin was working that day at the Sunoco.
“I heard a loud noise,” said Tumlin, who was 25 at the time. “Everybody was scared and then, the screaming and shouting took over.”
Wallace, who was then governor of Alabama, suffered near- fatal gunshot wounds that would leave him paralyzed from the waist down.
Mike Hall was an emergency room technician on his first night shift when Wallace was brought into Silver Spring’s Holy Cross Hospital minutes after the shooting.
“He had gunshot wounds that could have ended his life,” said Hall, now a public information officer for Montgomery County.
Hall took Wallace’s blood pressure and kept track of his vital signs before he was rushed into surgery.
“I kept recalling the Kennedy assassination, which made the experience too surreal,” he recalled.
Collins, who was working for a car dealership at the time of the shooting, said he did not know that Wallace was coming to town, but decided to stop at the shopping center when he saw the crowd.
“I stayed for a few minutes and then got back in my car and drove away,” said Collins. “After a few minutes, I heard on the radio that Wallace had been shot and I turned my car around and went back.
“I had just seen [Wallace],” he said. “It stunned me so much to find out that he had been shot.”
Collins said the incident affected him so much that he returned to the scene later that night.
“It was like I had to go back there,” he said.
Collins said residents were left asking themselves: “Why did this happen in Laurel? How could this happen in Laurel?”
The shooting did not end Wallace’s political career. He went on to be elected to a fourth term as governor of Alabama in 1982 and, in his later years, recanted the racist rhetoric of his earlier campaigns.
The shooting did end what residents today recall as a time of innocence for Laurel.
“It was a quaint town,” said Tumlin.