When Alice Wilhoit wanted to improve office morale with little raffles for her co-workers, she had to get permission. "Had to sort of-not really beg-but I was sort of like, 'pleeease,'" the Department of Public Works employee of the year says in a lilting soprano.
Wilhoit, who does payroll and other clerical work at the Montebello Filtration Plant off Hillen Road, has always played by the rules-and made new ones. She has been at the Montebello plant for 26 years now, doing her job and some other things.
She sings, she deejays, she used to make potato salad by the gross. At the filtration plant, where more than 100 workers make sure Baltimore's drinking water is clean, Wilhoit festoons the bulletin board with homemade decorations and stages small events on holidays to break up the work week. At Christmas, it is Wilhoit who supplies the tree, lights the lights, and organizes a talent show.
And 22 years ago or so she founded Hot Diggity Dog Day.
"When I first came here, there was only a few females," Wilhoit says in a conference room at the plant while DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher, who is there by Wilhoit's request, watches over. "It was only about 15 females. Now at Ashburton and Montebello, there are about 60 females or whatever. And we only had that one bathroom."
Kocher laughs. So does Wilhoit.
At first, Wilhoit says, she would get the other women Christmas gifts. She did not have the pockets to treat everyone (though everyone in the plant gets a birthday card from her). To make sure everyone was treated, Wilhoit came up with the idea of serving everyone at the plant a free lunch one day a year.
"That's where Hot Diggity Dog Day came in," Wilhoit says. "It first started out hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, baked beans, potato chips, and a drink. I wanted to do it for free."
Her boss told her she had to charge, she says. "So it was a dollar. It was all-you-could-eat. So I would go out and buy 200 hot dogs. Potato-roll bread, baked beans. . . . At that time I was making the potato salad."
This would be many potatoes, she is told.
"Yeah, who you tellin'?" she laughs.
The lunch is $5 now, Wilhoit says, adding, "I want to lower the price to $3."
A few years back, when the recession forced furloughs on city workers, Wilhoit expanded her efforts to include holiday raffles and other prize giveaways on Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and St. Patrick's Day.
"A lot of times people didn't know their name was in the raffle," Wilhoit says. "They'd say, 'How'd my name get in there?' I'd say, 'We'll put your name in there.'"
Wilhoit's work with the city goes back to the William Donald Schaefer administration. She did budgets, went to DPW to feed water-meter data into the computer (it was the computer then), and for a time worked for Clarence H. "Du" Burns, whose chief of staff she served directly through 1987, the year he served as mayor. "We were sort of on loan" from DPW, she says. When Burns lost his bid for a full term, Wilhoit was told she could work at Back River or Ashburton. She called DPW Director George Balog and asked for another choice. He told her to come to Lake Montebello.
"Mr. Balog used to have me singing a lot," Wilhoit says. "I sang 'The Star Spangled Banner' for one of the games."
This is because Wilhoit can sing. "We did a record when I was 17," she says. "We went to New York City to record it."
The band was called the Chapells. She was one of five singers and three instrumentalists. At the studio in New York they added xylophone and violins, she says.
This would have been in 1969. Wilhoit is quick to say she was not the lead vocal on the record.
"I used to imitate Diana Ross and the Supremes. Loved them. And people would stand outside the window to hear me sing. So, then, we formed the group or whatever, and that's when the record came."
Simple as that. Except:
"Oh, before that, in school I was in glee club," Wilhoit says. "And the physical education teacher and my music teacher- and I regret this to this day- they were going to pay my way to Peabody." She did not accept their offer.
"I wanted to sing with the group."
Wilhoit thought she could hit the big time with that record. "It got played on the radio for one day," she says, "and we don't know what happened."
The Chapells played the clubs around town, mostly cover stuff, Wilhoit says. "We didn't get paid much. But the fact that you were out there singing in front of a audience, you got your charge or thrill from that."
Wilhoit worked with the Chapells and other bands for more than 30 years. As the band was winding down, she started deejaying at senior citizen homes. She says she went door-to-door at first, offering to spin records. "I did it for nothing. Totally free. Just to get established." That was about 16 or 17 years ago. "I do charge now," she says. "I call it music on wheels."
She sings along sometimes too on her karaoke machine. People love it, she says, but she wishes she had written more songs with the group. "They begged me to do original songs but I was just so shy. I didn't want to do it, but I regret that too! You look back on it. . ."
Kocher protests the shyness claim. He sings with Wilhoit sometimes at DPW functions.
"I aaaam," Wilhoit says. "I am very shy."
Shy or not, a big crowd does not bother Wilhoit.
Her mother had 19 children, she says. "Twelve of us lived. There's only 10 left now."
One that didn't make it was Alice's twin, Allen.
"He weighed 8 pounds and I weighed 6 pounds at birth, so you can see he ate all the food up," she laughs.
The family moved from D.C. to Baltimore when Alice and Allen were 3, she says. Soon after, the twins were in Elementary School 113. (Actually it was "Colored School 113," later renamed Benjamin Banneker Elementary, closed in the early 1960s.)
One day when Allen was 17, he got into it with another boy, Alice says. The other boy was 15, she remembers, "and the boy was throwing rocks at Allen, throwing something at Allen. And Allen told him to stop throwing rocks in the alley or something. So the boy said, well, 'I'm gonna get you' or 'I'm gonna kill you.'
"This happened on a Thursday," Wilhoit says. "And the following week, the boy caught up with Allen- Allen went to a movie, and when him and his girlfriend came from the movie, they ganged up on him and shot him.
"He didn't survive it."
Wilhoit says her twin brother's killer was locked up for only five years.
"I still think about it sometimes. I wonder what my life would have been like. I still cry sometimes about it. It was just like it just happened."
Wilhoit got through Fairmount High School and went to community college for a year or so, but at age 19 she had a daughter. As a single parent Wilhoit did not have a lot of money. She says she was on public assistance for about four years. "It was rough," she says. She remembers what it was like.
Her daughter is now 42. Her son is 28. Wilhoit never had a husband, but she has three grandsons and a great-granddaughter, she says.
She bought a house in Towson and lives there with her son and her uncle, who she says just turned 91 years old. "Uncle" in this case means her mother's boyfriend. "He's been like a father to me." She takes care of him, she says. "And that's it."