OCEAN CITY — In early November of 2013, Patricia Dufendach read a story about a horrific tragedy that claimed the life of a 16 year old boy who lived not far from her Berlin home.
The boy was trying to cross route 113 at the intersection of Bay Street and the four lane highway that had become known as one of the busiest and most dangerous in our entire region.
He and his brother were struck by a Maryland State Police cruiser. His brother was severely injured but the collision claimed his life.
Dufendach says she immediately felt like something needed to be done as she was overcome by the immense feeling of grief that the boy’s family, whom she had never met, must have been feeling.
That was the day Patricia Dufendach became a highway activist and essentially began spearheading a grassroots effort that would call for a crosswalk at the dangerous intersection and reduced speed on the highway. It was an effort that proved to be a success as speed has been reduced from 55 mph to 45 mph on that stretch of road, and there is now a crosswalk at the very site where the young boy lost his life.
Dufendach will be honored by Worcester County chapter of the NAACP on Oct. 17 at its annual Freedom Fund Banquet along with a number of other community leaders, including former Pocomoke City Police Chief Kelvin Sewell. Dufendach and I sat down to talk about her belief that, in the words of Mahatma Ghandi, you must “be the change that you want to see in the world.”
Q: What about that story made you not just feel compassion or grief, but made you want to do something more?
A: There’s nothing harder in a family than to lose a child. That was the strongest thing to me, because I lost a child and I identified with that. And they were struck and (one) died, in a senseless fashion because there was no safe way to cross the highway. Simply because there was no safe way to cross, and this wasn’t the first time our community has been concerned about safety at 113, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in my mind. We had to do something. It had to stop.
Q: Tell me how you started this mission to get change to happen. Obviously, it’s the State’s road, so that’s a call you had to make, but how do you go from being a concerned citizen reading an article, to eventually, walking across that highway on a new crosswalk?
A: You go to the town council, and you say what can we do about this? Sadly, it took the death of this young boy and the injury of the other young man for people to take the wax out of the ears and listen and have it be a problem that they wanted to solve.
I had the desire to help solve that problem. I made a little Powerpoint presentation and said these are the problems I see: people are going to fast, and not necessarily stopping at stoplight. The simple act of trying to walk across the highway at the light, as you are supposed to do, made me realize you can’t do it safely. Something had to change. Many of the town’s officials and the citizens stepped up. We decided we’d get a petition and we gave ourselves a very short period of time — two weeks — to see how many signatures we could get.
Berlin’s a small town, and I probably recognize half of them when I go to the grocery store, but from this small town, we got over 1,000 signatures. We took this to the Mayor and Council and they helped us coordinate with the State Highway Administration.
Q: Was there any point while you were knocking on doors and getting signatures, where you thought, ‘what if we get all these signatures and nobody listens to us?’ Did you believe if you got enough support that you could change things?
A: Yes, I always thought we’d get a crosswalk at Bay Street. I believe we will get a crosswalk at Old Ocean City Boulevard. I believe as soon as Main Street/Germantown Road gets improved we will get a light and a crosswalk there. They have invested money in these. They are doing it because the laws are in place. The reason why we have a bicycle lane through town now is because our speed limit was lowered. That allowed the state to put in that bicycle lane in a safe fashion, and now you see all through Berlin, they’ve done a wonderful job identifying where bicycles are. The Maryland State Highway Administration has put this all in place for us, but we just had to say ‘it’s our turn to have our people taken care of and our community deserves to be safe.
Q: You hear historically about how 113 created a division between two parts of Berlin. It’s even been called the “Berlin Wall” before, dividing the predominantly white side of Berlin from the African-American side of Berlin. Do you think with this crosswalk and perhaps the addition of more crosswalks that the divide or wall will be, not just symbolically knocked down, but will also open up the causeway, so to speak?
A: I think this offers an opportunity and without the opportunity for meeting, for intersecting, for commerce to happen, or even having a safe place to walk; without that you can’t start the healing or build a community. You can’t have a whole community with a barrier and the road was a barrier. It was put up, and it did divide the town.
There are a lot of things that happened from the mid-20th century that are so sad that we are now trying to fix. That separation was real, and it still is real, and now we have a chance to make a whole community.
Q: I’ve heard it said before that a community can’t be gauged by its elected officials, but rather, by the quality and perhaps the quantity of citizens who are willing to step up when the time is right. How do you view the past few years? It sounds like you did this more so because you thought it was the right thing to do, more so, than getting any credit or praise.
A: We all want to have the best community that we can and the best life that we can. I live here. I don’t live in some fictitious place. Everyday I wake up and I’m here with my neighbors, and that’s what I want, I want to be in harmony with my neighbor.
Q: What have you heard from people who live on that side of the highway? Have lives been improved and their safety increased because there is a crosswalk there?
A: I think the biggest thing is that attention has finally been paid. Somebody has paid attention and we’ve done something. Something has been achieved and that’s a goal in and of itself. Beyond that, I’ve made new friends. The other thing is that pedestrian safety is more on people’s minds.
Q: It’s inspiring to sit here and talk to you because as I understand it, working in journalism, that government moves really slow, and to get things to happen can often outlast the passion it takes to spark change. You are a living example that you can be inspired to help usher in change and actually see it through. What have you learned about the process?
A: Don’t set your expectations too high. Set a realistic goal and you won’t be disappointed. I knew that they could do it (reduce speed limit), because communities across Maryland have been doing it. Why not Berlin? If this had been in place, maybe those two boys wouldn’t have been in the way of that car.
(Editor’s Note: From 1980 to 1997, there were almost 50 fatalities on the local stretch of route 113, and there were 7 fatalities since 2000. However, since the crosswalk opened, there have been no pedestrian related deaths.)