Charles Sekula ‘Mister Downtown’
Charles “Charlie” Sekula was born on May 25, 1945, in Braunau, Austria. The birth took place in a schoolhouse enroute to a refugee camp, attended by a young doctor. It was the first time the doctor had ever delivered a baby. Charlie’s parents were refugees during the evacuation from Ratibor due to Russian invasion near the end of WWII. Lack of food caused his mother to be undernourished, with little mother’s milk to feed her infant. The family remained at the refugee camp for two years. The Sekulas were then assigned to a farmer’s property where 14 adults and children lived in one room with an outhouse. Everyone worked, regardless of age, and as a toddler and very young boy Charlie collected chicken eggs and cleaned animal stalls while the farmer’s children played freely. At age six, Charlie walked to school 6.5 kilometers each way. Refugees were commonly treated with terrible disrespect, even by teachers. Charlie endured a life of ridicule and oppression throughout these early years.
After school, he went to work for the railroad as an apprentice, leaving for the United States shortly after completing his apprenticeship. What Charlie saw in Germany at that time was to work for the government, became a pensioner on a fixed income, then sit around and drink beer in the afternoons and that was it. He wanted more. He wanted an opportunity to make something out of himself and that’s what the American dream is all about.
In about 1967, speaking no English, he came to the U.S. He learned the language by listening to others, watching TV, and reading. He was fortunate to have a job working in the construction of high power lines, where he was promoted to foreman. After proving himself on several construction jobs, he began planning his dream of sharing the Bavarian food he loved with others.
Charlie bought the building in 1986, while he worked for Mack Truck, where he was a member of a German club. He made friends and even found investors for his restau-rant there. He and his then wife ran a beauty shop while getting the building ready. Whatever needed to be done, Charlie could do it, or he would learn how to do it, in-cluding carpentry, welding, and soldering.
“He was a very handy guy,” says Dieter Blosel.
According to Dieter, Schmankerl Stube chef and owner since 2008, Charlie opened the restaurant on April 2, 1988.
Over the years he spent quite a bit of time in the Chamber of Commerce as well as being on the board of the Restaurant Association of Maryland in Annapolis.
Dieter says that as an employer, Charlie was somebody who was always helpful. “If he saw that you were up to his standards, that you were doing the things that you need to do, then he would go out of his way to help you if he could. But if he did not think that you were doing what you should be doing, he wanted nothing to do with you. It was just something in who he was. He had a clear understanding of what was right and what was wrong, and he always was very honest about everything. That was true in everything that he did.”
The loyalty Charlies inspired in his employees is truly remarkable. Klaus Brietsameter, from Munich, Germany, was the first chef that Charlie hired at the Stube. Diane Collins started as a dishwasher in 1988, and worked her way up in the restaurant, eventually becoming a cook, even stepping in to run the kitchen at the time of Brietsameter’s departure. She is still working there today.
The front house-manager, Krista Donahugh, has been employed at the Stube for nearly 30 years, except for a brief time when she relocated to Florida.
Blair Anderson, assistant manager, has also been working there for nearly 20 years.
A very dear friend of Charlie’s, Marty Weedon, spent a lot of time with him over the past three decades. Formerly of the Hagerstown City Police department, he was one of the first black police officers in the city.
Marty met Charlie in 1988. He says he got to know him over time and found him to be a really nice guy. Which Marty said was interesting, because while he was in his police training, some of the guys had warned him that Charlie was a difficult man to deal with, and even said he probably didn’t like black people very much. Marty was not bothered by those remarks.
He said, “I like to make up my own mind about people. And Charlie was always very professional. I liked the way he treated people. He was always fair.”
They became close and remained so for the rest of Charlie’s life.
Marty took Charlie out to dinner every Wednesday night after he started getting sick and couldn’t drive anymore. “He was like a dad to me. He always gave me good advice, about everything,” Marty said.
Marty volunteered at catering events, and at Augustoberfest working security, and later on helped out serving the food. “It was a lot of fun. After the event, we’d go back to the Stube and have a few drinks and shoot the bull.”
Marty remembers a special occasion years ago. “When he finally had the place paid off, he invited me and a couple other guys over to his house and we grilled some steaks and drank Remy Martin XO, had a great time. Yeah, it was a great time!”
He went on saying, “Something else I always liked about Charlie, when I used to go out with him, when we would go out in public anywhere, and would meet any of his political friends or somebody of importance, he would always introduce me to his friends as ‘This is my good friend, Marty’. Charlie always made a space to introduce me. I really respect him for that.”
Marty feels the loss of his friend very deeply.
“Every day is hard, but I get through it, I take one step at a time. That man taught me a lot, you know. He was a good man,” he says as he wipes a tear from his eye.
Marty went on, “He was a perfectionist. My gracious, he was. He wanted it done right. He always worked all the time at the Stube. He was there at 6 o’clock in the morning to water the flowers and do the paperwork from the night before, get home at 11 o’clock, eat lunch, take a nap till 1 o’clock and then go back down to the Stube at about 3:30, and he’d be there till the bar closed.”
Charlie could deal with the crowd, deal with disorderly people … in a professional way. He was great at keeping the riffraff off his block, too. Sometimes, he would walk out with his customers when they leave for the night, and he would make sure they got to their vehicle safely. Marty would help him do that too, to make sure nobody would bother his customers.
“And he had charisma. Everybody took notice of him when he came into the room. He was the Mack Daddy!” says Marty with a smile.
Another member of Charlie’s inner circle, Brett Wilson volunteered at the Augustoberfest since 1999 and helped out at other events.
They met in 1994. A cousin took Brett to the Stube for lunch, for the homemade desserts mostly, and he met Charlie then.
Brett fondly recalls, “There was the Mug Club at the Stube. You had your own lidded German beer stein from Bavaria. The mugs hang over the bar, with your name and number on it. In order to be a member Charlie had to invite you, or Krista had to invite you. Back in the day, it was a very active club. We had Christmas dinners and other things. Charlie was the reason it existed, and Charlie was the reason that we participated.”
“In its heyday we always had about 40 people at the events. Many of us became very good friends, and all because of the restaurant and the Mug Club. The bar managers, bartenders the waitresses, they’re all part of the family. And that’s how what Charlie wanted it, because you work hard, you do things the right way but you’re family also.”
With a smile, Brett said, “Some of the best memories are of the Monday night dinner trips. The only night the Stube wasn’t open, and the only night Charlie could get to go out somewhere he wanted to go to eat. From DC to Baltimore County and everywhere in between.”
Then, when Charlie decided to sell the place to Dieter … it was a smooth transition.
“That’s the way he was, when he made up his mind, his mind was made up. He saw things very clearly, and when he made a decision, it was because that was what he wanted, and he didn’t second guess himself.”
Brett spoke about Charlie starting the restaurant.
“In the beginning, he chose the location, and everyone tried to tell him it would never work. It was a rundown apartment building and the son of the former owner had to be evicted. There were a few dive bars, some vacant buildings, the old library, and the Maryland Theatre, which was still struggling to find its place. Otherwise, the Stube was ‘it’ downtown, the only game in town at that time. He was definitely a driving force to get the arts and entertainment district to identify different ways that they could develop downtown. And he was also a member of the Greater Hagerstown Committee for a long time, which also looked at development and brought the bigger names in town together to talk about Washington County and Hagerstown in particular. As a result, people come to the city of Hagerstown from Washington, DC, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Chambersburg, and Northern Virginia just to come to the Stube. That is something no one could have conceived of before.”
Brett went on to say, “Charlie convinced the liquor board and the city that the street café dining was a good thing for the city. It took a lot of work, but he did it. Always supportive of the other restaurants in town, he knew that the more restaurants there are, the more people will come to Hagerstown, and that benefits everybody. Those customers will see your restaurant and they will come to eat at your restaurant next time.”
He was a visionary. The stadium downtown which is now in the works, was an idea that Charlie was strongly in support of over twenty years ago.
Jill Colbert, the chairperson of Augustoberfest since 2011, started out as the volunteer chairperson for the festival board many years ago and has been close friends with Charlie since 2008. Jill is proud that her 24-year-old son, Garrett Colbert, has taken on the volunteer chairperson position that she once held.
She recalled the way which board members were selected. Everyone on the board has the same passion and dedication to perfection that Charlie had. He carefully selected dedicated people and they all felt like family. Jill remembers Charlie’s incredible work ethic and his ability to get things done but says that one of the things she remembers most about him is his big infectious belly laugh.
Augustoberfest has been held in the city since the beginning but has now grown so large that now it has been moved to the Ag Center.
Jill says, “When the event was held downtown, Charlie wanted it to be authentic, and wanted to be sure that people got a taste of his country. With it at the Ag Center now, it really allows for that to happen in the pavilions which can be dressed up like festival houses. It really has worked out well.”
Jill says the festival weekend will be dedicated to Charlie and knows it will be very emotional for her and for all of his close friends who are involved. She recalls previous years when Charlie, dressed in his leder-hosen, asked her to wear a dirndl, and how she never felt that she had the time to do that while performing her duties as chairperson. This year, she says she will put that dirndl on for Charlie.
Bob Bruchey was mayor of Hagerstown for 15 years. His first interaction with Charlie was back in early 1997 when he was running for mayor the first time. They had a meeting at the Stube, his opponent was also there, and they talked about a whole range of issues. Those were issues that were near and dear to Charlie’s heart. They talked about redevelopment of downtown, marketing, and the Downtown Assessment District known as “DAD”. Every business paid into what was supposed to be marketing the downtown area. It was really just another tax, and Charlie was never in favor of it because it was more hurtful for business than helpful. One of the first things Bruchey did when he got elected was to repeal DAD.
“Over the years, there was Augustoberfest, which was huge of course, but Charlie was also on many different committees, I don’t know where he had time to do anything else, he was very instrumental in anything that went on downtown.”, says Bruchey. “The Maryland Theatre, The BISFA School, USMH, the new library right across from the Stube, he was very instrumental in helping with all of that. He was ‘Mister Downtown’ because he was the foothold that started it all.”
Bruchey goes on, “I gave him the key to the city, the very first one that I ever gave out. He was a cornerstone. He was in it for everybody, and he was in it to win it, as a total for downtown. He was aggressive in trying to get things accomplished. He was a bulldog.”, he says with a laugh.
In remembering Charlie, Paul Frey began by saying, “Charlie was really the first one to come back into downtown Hagerstown to help us reinvigorate downtown and he took a risk to locate where he was and invest some money over 30 years ago. He was a big part of the anchor of what is now downtown, and now people come from out of the area, from DC and Virginia to Hagerstown just to come to the Stube, that’s something he really did for the business community and the community at large.”
There is a lot to say about Charlie Sekula as a community leader and businessman. Frey went on to speak of Charlie by saying, “From a personal point of view, he was such a gentleman. He reflected well upon Hagerstown, you know? The fact that he was so nice to people, he was a good ambassador for Hagerstown. He’s friendly and he gives a good reputation to the city. When you do things for the community, you’re going to do well whether you have a restaurant or any other type of business, if it’s community first, and you’re polite and you’re friendly, people will support you. And that’s what Charlie brought to the community. He was just a great role model.”
Going on, Frey says that Charlie never met a stranger. “If you had never met him before, he made you feel like you were a long-lost friend.”
Frey recalled a time when Charlie was recognized by the governor of Maryland.
“Charlie received a Governor’s citation a few years ago from Governor Hogan. He didn’t seek the limelight and when he received this citation from the governor, it just made him so proud because he wasn’t looking for it, but he certainly appreciated it.”
Karen Giffin was the community affairs manager in Hagerstown when she met Charlie in the mid-nineties while planning the first Augustoberfest.
“When Charlie entered a room, he garnered attention.”, she said.
She talked of how she admired, respected and ultimately grew to love him, as so many have. “Charlie gave his heart to helping downtown,” she said.
That fact is evident in the Schmankerl Stube, where many of the awards and acknowledgements he received over the years are on display. Most are on a wall in what is now Dieter Blosel’s office upstairs. Charlie was presented with every award imaginable, including the Washington County Businessperson of the Year, which meant a great deal to him.
Giffin spoke of the man whose friendship was a treasure. “Once you earned his friendship, you were a friend for life. His standard was high, and he was uncompromising in the best way. He expected excellence. Charlie showed people respect and caring, and in the end, it was love,” she said.
Jim Pierne, former president of Susquehana Bank, and another dear friend of Charlie’s, worked on the festival committee for years, fundraising and more. Pierne says, “Whenever Charlie was asked to help, he was a ‘star’. For example, when the Maryland Symphony Orchestra had an event, he donated the food, the venue, everything! He would organize, plan, and pull it all together and then he worked the event, every time.”
Pierne finished by saying, “He was a Greater Hagerstown Committee member, Chamber of Commerce member, and founded the Augustoberfest foundation to fund the event and keep it going. Eighty-five percent of the Stube’s business came from outside Hagerstown. Charlie helped put the city on the map in a very real way.”
Charlie is survived by two children and three grandchildren. They are Michelle Weber, and her daughters, Emily Weber and Amanda Weber of North Carolina, Jurgen Reuss, and his daughter, Alina Reuss of Landshut, Germany.