ANNAPOLIS – It’s 1932, and Thomas Columbus Edwards, then 24, is called to the podium by Maryland Senate President Walter J. Mitchell, D-Charles. Mitchell tells him to go up to the gallery and “tell the people up there to stop talking and smoking.”
One man in the balcony refused to put his cigarette out and threatened to throw him over the railing.
“I told him if he did, we would go over together,” Edwards said. “I could see he looked mad, throwing that cigarette down.”
But Edwards’s polite forcefulness had an effect.
“After that, nobody said a word,” he said. “They quieted down and stopped smoking.”
That was more than 60 years ago, but Edwards, now 92, and a Charles County resident, can still remember his experiences as one of the first pages for the Maryland Senate.
Edwards returned to the chamber Tuesday to be honored for his tenure as a page. There he remembered how the experience helped shape his political life today.
Before an established page program was put into place in 1970, lawmakers chose individuals from their districts to be informal, patronage pages during the General Assembly sessions. It wasn’t until Maryland’s Constitutional Convention from 1967 to 1968 that high school students began serving as pages. They served mainly as gallery hostesses and doorkeepers.
The son of Harry and Bernadette Edwards, the younger Edwards was appointed as a page by Mitchell, who was then a district senator. Edwards roomed at a nearby boarding house owned by an elderly couple, where he paid $1 a day for a room and meals. He earned $5 a day.
“I thought that was big money back then – and it was,” he said.
Before stepping into the halls of power, Edwards rarely left his family’s tobacco farm in Charles County, Banks O’Dee.
“I was half scared to death,” he said. “I’d never been out so much, but they (legislators) were very nice to me. I tried to remember some of the things my mother had told me when I was a small boy – `always have good manners.'”
Legislators didn’t have telephones then, and no one had microphones as they do now.
“If the place was quiet, you could hear the people talk,” he said. “But you’d think they’d almost start to fight sometimes.”
The state’s capital was a huge change of life and pace for Edwards.
As a young boy, Edwards attended Wayside grade school for seven years, then went on to a one-room high school down the road from his family’s farm for two years – all the schooling available at the time. A four-year high school was later built – Glasva High School – the first high school fully owned and operated by Charles County.
Edwards attended Glasva and graduated with nine others in 1926 – the first graduating class.
The class issued yearbooks, but they were destroyed by wear and tear. Edwards made it his project a few years ago to have them remade in their original form and distributed to the remaining 1926 class members and their families.
“I was never able to give a party when I was in school, so this was my party,” he said. “It made everybody really tickled to see them.”
After accepting the Senate position, he was there only about three weeks when he came down with a throat infection. Edwards returned to the farm. But he soon left after meeting his future wife, Missouri native Cornelia Rottler.
“I told my father, `There’s not a big enough farm here for two of us.'”
After marrying Cornelia on Nov. 24, 1934, the two moved to Mitchellville in Prince George’s County, where he worked as a tobacco farmer. The two later moved to Indian Head so he could work at nearby government-owned factories during World War II, first making nitroglycerine and then other explosive products for use in the war.
“I was getting scared of all that explosive stuff,” he said. “Buildings were blowing up and people got killed.”
So Edwards transferred to a powder-making plant where he made smokeless powder to be used for larger war weapons.
After buying his house for $3,200, Edwards and his wife attended a nearby Catholic church, which they traveled to on horse and buggy.
Edwards also began his own trucking business on the side to make more money, picking up shipments from nearby towns and distributing them to smaller businesses.
But politics has always held Edwards’ interest.
Being a Senate page gave Edwards more insight into the world of politics than he had before – an interest he has carried throughout his lifetime.
“When he spoke about being a page, there was a pride that kind of beamed forth,” said his daughter, Jean M. Edwards. “It goes forth with what I’ve seen over the years about his interest in the political scene.”
Edwards has been active in politics in Charles County and in his own town of Indian Head. But he also has always taken an interest in state and world politics.
“For being (almost) 93, he cares an awful lot,” Jean Edwards said. “The political savvy and the strong opinions he holds today – I think some of that began as a page.”
Edwards has been a member of his county’s Democratic Club for almost 10 years. One of the goals of the club is to try to recruit younger people into politics.
“You can’t get some of these young kids into politics,” he said. “Some of us are getting too old to even be fooling with politics.”
On the federal level, Edwards said he thinks the country’s doing well, despite President Clinton’s problematic relationships, such as that with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“That’s like the pot and the kettle,” he said. “I’m just wondering if the president has as much to do with things being so good as Congress. It takes all kinds, I guess, to make a world.”
Sixty-seven years after leaving the Senate for Banks O’Dee, Edwards returned Tuesday for what he thought was just a social visit.
But the return visit was full of surprises – Annapolis and the Senate were much different than he remembered, and he turned out to be the guest of honor. He thought he was just making a trip to see Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, the son of Edwards’ old friend, Harry Middleton, but he was awarded a certificate from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George’s, and the legislators, thanking him for his dedicated service to the Senate and stating that “he maintained respectful silence in the Senate gallery in the face of at least one defiant heckler.” He received a standing ovation.
“I surely wasn’t looking for anything like that to happen,” he said. “I thought Mac (Middleton) just wanted to see me for something.”
And Edwards finally got to shake the hand of a man he had only seen from a distance – a man he says was responsible for preserving about 2,600 acres of land near his house instead of letting it be sold to developers: Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
“I had seen him at meetings in LaPlata, but I had never shook his hand before then,” Edwards said. “All in all, he’s doing a good job.”
Edwards will turn 93 in July. He has three siblings: 99-year-old JoAnn Cox of Silver Spring; Berna Toler, 86, of Richmond, Va.; and Jack Edwards, 77, who runs Banks O’Dee. Edwards also has three daughters, Mary Ann Thomas of Virginia Beach, Jean Edwards of Easton and Kathleen Edwards of Baltimore.