By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2004
David Desmarais was City Paper‘s dry cleaner for years, and he became friends with many of its sales staff as a result. In the editorial department, too, Desmarais was regarded as a friend, but even more so as a vital force in city life.
As a small-business owner, he wanted Baltimore to do well, but his true motivation as a civic booster derived from his role as a community activist and resident – though he sometimes admitted deep disappointment in the city’s directions, especially during its bleakest years in the late 1990s. He died of cancer Nov. 12 at the age of 46.
Desmarais was a man on the scene, always present at festivals, films, political events, taverns, concerts, and government hearings, always ready to start a free-ranging conversation, offer a news tip, comment on the outrages of local leaders, or constructively critique City Paper, whose writers became very familiar with the sound of his calm, steady voice, hearkening from Northeast Baltimore, or receiving e-mails from him—his address was firstname.lastname@example.org. (His license plate read “bawlmer”).
Desmarais moved here from his native Boston when he was still a toddler. His father, Ken Desmarais, took to the airwaves as a WCBM-AM radio jock, and Dave took to his new neighborhood, Northwood. Graduation from Calvert Hall College High School (1976) was followed by enrollment at Randolph Macon College in Virginia, where he earned an English degree. After that, he worked in retail sales downtown and, later, for the Downtown Partnership business association.
By 1990, he’d gotten into the dry-cleaning business, and his routes for pickups and deliveries added to his impressive knowledge of local culture, history, and architecture.
Desmarais was also a community activist. He helped found the Herring Run Watershed Association, a local environmental group, and Communities Organized for Responsible Development, which monitors Harford Road economic development. He also served as president of the Moravia-Walther Community Association.
At the Nov. 20 memorial service for Desmarais, held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Lutherville, brother Doug Desmarais recalled that, before he succumbed to cancer on Nov. 12 at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Baltimore County, Dave made a last-minute change in his own memorial plans.
“One of the things we talked about was this gathering,” Doug Desmarais said. Dave ultimately opted against “going to a dive on Harford Road for crabs and Natty Boh” to commemorate his Balto-centric life. Instead, though he was not a member of the church, he decided that a service where his siblings—Doug and sister Suzanne Vinyard—practice their faith was fitting.
Anthony Tomassetti, who shared a birthday with Dave Desmarais, rued that he’ll miss an annual tradition: drinking a mutual beer to one another on Feb. 16, no matter where each was at the time. He commended Desmarais for his curiosity, intellect, and individuality, and recalled that the dry cleaner/activist “forced local political-signage laws to be enforced” in Baltimore City—a crusade for which City Paper dubbed Desmarais “Baltimore’s cherub of political-sign justice.” Tomassetti used the title “passionate pilgrim of Baltimore” to describe Desmarais, and pointed out that Mayor Martin O’Malley sent Desmarais a “very nice letter” before his passing.
“That Dave, he knows almost everything,” was a common remark made about Desmarais, Tomassetti continued. “I fully expect he will be debriefed in heaven on current affairs by everyone from Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., to John Lennon of the Beatles.”
Put that roster around a table of crabs and beer at a Baltimore local, and Desmarais would know he’d reached Nirvana.