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New Horizons Band - Hagerstown

Bill Dennis - A Life Remembered - Former Band Member

Bill Dennis could have been a fifth-generation steel worker, but there was something else calling.

It was the pursuit of knowledge, and it never left the Keedysville-area man.

Bill's daughter Allison said she discovered the long-running tradition of steel work in her family in a story in the June 13, 1947, edition of The Baltimore Sun. The article, headlined "Point of Steel," described her great-grandfather's career in the steel industry. Bill, a young boy at the time, can be seen in the story's photo.

But Bill broke tradition when he decided to be the first one in his family to attend college.

He got a job as a sand tester in an American Standard Corp. plant and began saving money for college, paving the way for what would eventually become a career as a chemist.

There was so much in Bill's mind he wanted to pursue, and when he and his wife, Martha, came to the Tri-State area, he marveled at the joys of nature, keeping extensive journals related to gardening and continuing to explore other interests like music and writing.

The region's rural nature was fodder for Bill's creativity, like when he comically wrote about the "smells of cow dung" mixing with the spring air in a poem, "April Airs."

Bill was born on May 16, 1941, in Baltimore. He got the sand-testing job at American Standard Corp. after high school. The setup was perfect for his learning quest. There was a set of chemistry books in the lab, and Bill studied them between taking hourly sand samples for the company, which made products like toilets, according to his daughter.

After a year on the job, Bill started taking classes at McCoy College, which was the night school at Johns Hopkins University, his daughter said. A placement service helped Bill find a laboratory technician job at the chemical company W.R. Grace.

It only paid him $60 a week, but the company reimbursed Bill for all science courses in night school.

One of the faculty members at the school was a chemist at the Edgewood Arsenal facility, which researched areas related to chemical warfare and today is part of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Maryland.

With the highest grade in his class, Bill was recruited in 1964 by the U.S. Army to work as a civilian lab technician in the facility. As Bill's college studies advanced, he was promoted to an environmental chemist position.

The following year, the Army allowed him to take a one-year sabbatical with pay, and they paid for him to attend Johns Hopkins University full time to earn his masters degree.

In 1974, Bill's job moved to Fort Detrick in Frederick County, Md., and he spent some of that time working on his doctorate in science, which he completed in 1978, the same year his wife, Martha, graduated from Hood College.

Modern-day Renaissance man

Bill and Martha lived in Braddock Heights in Frederick County, and later they looked for property on which to build their own home. Because there was more land variety for less money in Washington County, they landed in the Keedysville area in 1991.

Bill's obituary described him as a modern-day Renaissance man who "pursued knowledge with a passion."

The couple's home near the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and the Kennedy Farm (also called John Brown's Farm) between Keedysville and Rohrersville has terraced gardens, and Bill found peace growing vegetables and flowers. In his garden journals, Bill recorded dates, weather conditions, what he planted and what the yields were.

He enjoyed learning through The Great Courses, which offers thousands of streaming videos on hundreds of subjects.

Bill played a variety of musical instruments, an interest that stemmed from his teenage years.

"One day he came home and said 'Mom, I'm going to learn the trombone,''' Martha said.

The young man repeated that again, one day saying he was going to join the choir, and later saying he was going to join the drama club, his wife said.

Bill especially loved playing the piano. While mowing grass at his aunt's house, he would duck inside to practice on an upright, his wife said.

"He played up until the time he died," she said.

Bill played in the local New Horizons Band, which has performed at events around the area, including the grand opening of the Hagerstown Cultural Trail in 2017. He was also a member of a German band that played in the Hagerstown area and performed with the Rohrersville Cornet Band for a couple years.

Cultural Trail photos: New photos sought for Faces of Hagerstown second exhibition

Leader of the band: Rohrersville's past is present for Richard HaynesBill enjoyed composing stories and poems and reciting them to friends and family.

In his poem "April Airs," Bill talks about the manure farmers store all winter only to spread the smelly stuff across local fields during pretty spring days. And while "city folk with tender noses gripe and cuss, complain and shout," the stuff has some "magic" in it "to revive dead soil that winter made," the poem says.

Allison said she remembers her dad getting a small prize for the work.

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