'Saving us more than saving them'

Thirty-five years have come and gone since Dan Schuster, just out of high school in Reisterstown, discovered something about the concrete business — he could do it better himself.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Schuster was an upstart contractor with a pickup truck, a shed full of tools and perpetually dirty pants.

He and his crew set up forms for concrete.

They poured concrete.

They finished concrete.

They also spent way too much time waiting for concrete to arrive at job sites.

"As the business payroll grew," the Schuster company history states, "so did the cost of even short delays, and it became clear that the only way to guarantee timely deliveries and have full control over project schedules was to start producing and delivering the concrete within his own company."

So that's what Mr. Schuster did. He set up a concrete plant in Owings Mills, and lot of small contractors and home builders responded.

The Schuster company has opened more plants since then. It seems like DGS trucks are everywhere. Over the years, the company has poured concrete into some huge projects — the 22-story Four Seasons Inner Harbor Hotel, the 28-story Legg Mason Tower in Harbor East, the Gaylord National Resort, Hotel & Conference Center in Oxen Hill, the Harrison Suites Hotel in Ocean City, and the MTA Metro Centre parking garage in Owings Mills. The list goes on.

While trucks bearing his name have become increasingly visible over the years, and while he's well known among builders throughout the region, Dan Schuster hasn't exactly been prominent in the news pages; he's hardly a publicity hound.

But when he stepped into the spotlight recently, it was in a big way, and with some of that impatient, do-it-better attitude that got his business rolling: He offered to write a check to the Archdiocese of Baltimore for $700,000 if it would reconsider its decision to close 13 Catholic schools in the city and Baltimore County.

In addition, Mr. Schuster's voice has been heard in radio ads asking parishioners to withhold contributions at Mass until Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien agrees to reopen the subject. Specifically, Mr. Schuster wants at least five of the schools that serve low-income children to be kept open for a few more years — until parents and other lay Catholics can figure out a way to operate them without debt.

I wrote about Mr. Schuster in this space last week and, as is tradition around here, some of our more cynical readers attached negative comments to the end of the column.

One criticized Mr. Schuster for calling for the Sunday offering boycott: After all, how would he like it if his concrete customers didn't pay their bills?

Another called Mr. Schuster "childish."

In a letter to this columnist on Good Friday, Mr. Schuster asked for more space to explain what motivates him to prod the archdiocese into action rather than retreat. The accusation about being "childish" affected him deeply, Mr. Schuster said, and that's why he wanted to respond.

After reading his letter and speaking to him a second time, it strikes me that a better description of Dan Schuster might be "child-focused."

He and his wife, Jeanie, have seven of their own, reared as Catholics, educated in the parochial schools. But much beyond that, Mr. Schuster expresses a passionate concern for children not his own — Catholic or not, and poor — and the important role the Catholic schools play in their lives.

"I have learned two things that children must have in order to achieve peace in their lives," Mr. Schuster wrote. "The first is, he must know in his heart that he is of great worth. The second is that he has to understand that his creator loves him without limits.

"Over the last 15 years, I have had the privilege to work with three organizations: a church on the west side [of Baltimore] with a focus on support for kids predominantly attending public schools; a community center on the east side that serves anyone in need throughout the community; and a Catholic school on Pennsylvania Avenue. These institutions give low-income kids the promise and reality of safety, satisfaction for their accomplishments and a deep love for God. I have seen how the efforts of the caregivers truly change lives.

"I think people are bored and hardened when they hear, ‘Help the poor.' I have seen the reality of children who do not have a safe place to be. For many of our low-income children, their eight hours at the Catholic schools are the only hours that they can be outside the four walls of their homes and still be safe.

"Helping the poor? That's one way to put it. A more accurate description would be standing with our brothers and sisters and understanding that our actions are saving us more than saving them.

"If we close all of these schools, we will send a clear message to these children: ‘The cost to provide you with an education is more than you are worth.' We will scar these children, and the scars will bring untold pain into many of their lives. To avoid this pain some will find drug addiction, alcoholism, multiple teen pregnancies, violence, lawlessness and prison. I have seen it time and again.

"I don't think parishioners are aware of the importance that the Catholic schools play in the city. For many of the children it is the central entity in their lives.

"How have I thanked the Catholic Church for the most precious gift in my life? I am fighting that [the church gives] the gift of mental and spiritual health to our precious, low-income children.

"Have I failed so miserably in sending the message that we must care for these kids that a parishioner would compare this effort to one of my customers electing not to pay a concrete invoice?

"I don't know much about education or social services, but I know that if we walk away from these kids, we will lose many of them."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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