Steve Roberts' Hometown: A Sense of Place

Steve Roberts' Hometown: A Sense of Place

How volunteering helped one local man forge a connection with the past-and the present

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Clarence Hickey moved to Montgomery County in 1976 to work as a scientist for the federal government. He and his wife, Mary, bought a house in Aspen Hill, joined a church in Bethesda, sent their two daughters to Wheaton High. But he never felt fully part of the community. He was defined more by his professional career than his personal connections.  

That changed after he began to volunteer at the Montgomery County Historical Society in the mid-’90s. Eventually he became an expert on Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet, a family physician who practiced medicine in the county for half a century starting in 1852.

Today, wearing a frock coat and derby hat, Hickey portrays the doctor at schools and nursing homes, fairs and festivals. He even holds “office hours” on the second Sunday of every month in Stonestreet’s original office in downtown Rockville, one of the few one-room freestanding medical buildings left in the entire country.

Now 70, and retired since 2005, Hickey recalls his career as a federal employee: “My wife was a teacher, she worked at Wheaton Woods Elementary, and when we would walk our dog around the neighborhood, the kids would come out and hug Mrs. Hickey. And they looked at me like, ‘who’s he?’ ”

“I felt like something was lost,” he tells me one sunny afternoon at the historical society. “Then I got involved here, and I really began to get back into a community. It really helped to restore my sense of place, who I am and where I am.”

Folks who move here to work for the government—or write about or influence or sell to the government—often feel disengaged from their new neighborhood. They need a way to revive their “sense of place” and Hickey found one of the best—volunteering.

He grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where his father was an engineer for an oil company. Then came a biology degree from Grove City College near Pittsburgh before the Army drafted him during Vietnam and assigned him to the hospital at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

Hickey spent the war doing lab work like blood tests on soldiers and their families, and he relishes the parallel with his character, who served three tours with the Union army during the Civil War. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Stonestreet spent four months treating soldiers at the Rockville courthouse, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital.

“Edward Stonestreet worked in an Army hospital in the 1860s, tending the wounded,” Hickey notes. “I worked in an Army hospital in the 1960s, in a little bit different job. I’m not an M.D., but I like that connection.”

After Vietnam, Hickey earned a graduate degree in marine biology from Long Island University and spent five years studying fisheries in New York’s coastal waters. That’s where he first developed a strong connection to a community, living and working with the fishermen of eastern Long Island, riding in their boats, walking on their beaches, worshipping in their churches.

His federal assignments built on that experience, focusing on the environmental impact of government construction projects. Much of his career was spent at the Department of Energy facility in Germantown, a 100-acre site that contained a patch of “undisturbed [woods] with a trail and a creek running through it and these big old trees.”

The teacher in Hickey was enthralled. He became the department’s “self-appointed nature guy,” drawing maps, labeling trees, leading walks.

The oldest tree he found dates to the 1750s, and his research only increased his interest in county history. Local farmers, he learned, wouldn’t plow their fields all the way down to a streambed, so most of the county’s tallest timbers are found next to water sources.

Hickey started volunteering at the historical society after his daughter, who interned there in high school, told him: “Dad, you’re going to love this place.”

She was right. A staff member who knew his biology background suggested he give tours of Dr. Stone-street’s office, which contains a medical museum. Once he retired, he had more time to delve into the doctor’s life, and it was Stonestreet’s personal qualities that really captured his attention.   

The doctor ministered to the poor at an almshouse on Falls Road. He was a lay preacher in his church and the county’s first public health officer. And he made house calls, even though he had to travel rough country roads by horse-drawn buggy to reach his patients.

“He would help anyone who needed his help, regardless of who they were or whether they could pay,” says Hickey. “He gave a lot back to the community asking very little in return.”

A hobby soon turned into an obsession. Hickey found Stonestreet’s thesis, hand-written when he was studying medicine at the University of Maryland. He researched stories in local papers—one from August of 1899 reported that Dr. Stonestreet was called in to pronounce two murderers dead after they’d been executed.

And he discovered the meticulous diaries of Roger and Caroline Farquhar, who farmed almost 400 acres east of Rockville and recorded the minute details of their lives for more than 50 years. Since Dr. Stonestreet was their family physician, he appears frequently in their journals, which their son had donated to the society.

“I spent the summer of 2008 reading every entry of Roger and Caroline’s diaries,” Hickey recalls. “It took me a few weeks to figure out their handwriting and their notations and abbreviations and all that, but once I cracked the code it was magnificent.”

One entry, for October of 1865, records that their son George “fell out of his high chair and cut his head badly against the stove.” The farmer summoned the doctor because the infant “was right sick all day.” Stonestreet attended the birth of all eight Farquhar children and when Caroline was “great with labor,” she would order her husband to “send for the doctor”—the title of a small book, published by the historical society, that Hickey has written about his hero.

It’s hard to know at times where Clarence Hickey ends and Edward Stone-street begins. Over the years they’ve morphed into each other and the performer loves “being in costume” and playing the 19th-century physician. But he refuses to take money for his appearances.

“I like the concept of volunteering because that’s what he did,” says Hickey. “He asked for nothing, and I cannot do anything different if I’m going to honor him.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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