- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. This small, historic town, two miles away as the crow flies from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, is doing its best to help the Middle East move toward peace.

A new sign posted throughout the town reads in Hebrew, English and Arabic, respectively: "Shalom, Peace, Salam. It's a beautiful sight to see."

Yesterday, as Israeli-Syrian peace talks began on a pleasant springlike day, clusters of the town's 1,094 residents their babies and dogs in tow gathered on the sidewalks to show their support and catch a glimpse of history in their hometown.

"Our moments of fame have only come twice before. When James Ramsey's steamboat was first tried here and then after the Battle of Antietam when all the injured soldiers came back through Shepherdstown. This is our third brush with history," said Vina Vaughan Parmesano, 66, a retired special education teacher and wife of Mayor Vincent Parmesano.

The State Department chose this site, about 90 miles from the District of Columbia, because of both its quiet nature and its proximity to the U.S. capital.

But some here say the town's appeal may be deeper and more meaningful.

Shepherdstown is a haven for those seeking a quieter, more peaceful existence, and transplants quickly take the town's history as their own.

There is a heritage of helping in times of war. Gen. Robert E. Lee's infantry came seeking refuge after the Sept. 17, 1862, battle at Antietam. The residents tended to the medical needs of between 5,000 and 8,000 casualties.

"If you look back in our town's history, we know what kind of things can happen during a war. We're very pleased to take part in a peace process instead of war," said Mr. Parmesano.

He said some of the residents were concerned about terrorism when they first heard of the visit; they are accustomed to few disturbances.

The police log offers a glimpse of what the town usually sees in the way of law and order. Published in the Shepherdstown Chronicle, it reads:

"Thursday, Dec. 16, 3 a.m. Town Very quiet. No activity."

"Saturday, Dec. 18, 9:30 p.m. Sheperdstown Junior High School. Loose cow at Junior high. Short foot pursuit with female cow. Subject got away in brush with incredible speed. Advised owner once he got to the scene."

Officials said at least 100 law enforcement officers are milling about and most concerns over terrorism have been alleviated.

During Mr. Parmesano's six years as mayor, other groups have come to learn more peaceful ways. A delegation of Bosnian social science teachers toured the town last year on Halloween. The State Department brought a group of Croatian municipal officials.

"This town is universally gentle and tolerant," said Jim Surkamp, who moved here from New York City 16 years ago and is now host of a weekly cable show on the history of the area. "If someone was in a traffic jam and honked, we'd be really shocked. It's most likely someone saying hello."

If there were a day for honking, though, yesterday would have been it. State troopers stopped traffic for motorcades and helicopters. Reporters and photographers streamed in and out of stores asking the same questions again and again.

But the mellow townsfolk, wearing well-worn sweaters and flannel shirts, mostly welcomed it all.

Catching sight of President Clinton waving from the back of a limousine, a child shrieked and a teen-ager asked, "Was it him, was it him?" At one point Mr. Clinton stepped out of his limo in the center of town to shake some hands, pat some dogs and say hello. One woman handed him the peace poster.

Caitlyn Zimmerman, 14, got a first-hand civics lesson during her first day as a home-schooler. She and her mom, Brooke, waited to see the president ride by. Caitlyn researched the history of Mideast tensions on the computer and in newspapers to gain an understanding of what was at stake.

Claire and Norman Sitman came from Newtown, Pa., to be with their daughter, Bonnie, 41, for the occasion. The couple's other two children live in Israel and Bonnie, who moved here with her husband and children about three years ago, is one of only a few Jews in the town.

She tried to invite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for a traditional Shabbat dinner, but couldn't get her invitation into the right hands.

"I feel like I'm probably the most connected person to Israel because half my family is from there. I thought he would want to make a soulful connection. I thought I could give him my opinion as well," she said.

Although there are no mosques or temples in Shepherdstown, some Christian churches are holding prayer vigils for peace during the two-week talks. One church is having services for non-Christian worshippers.

But aside from offering the serene surroundings, residents understand there is little they can do to influence history. But that won't stop them from trying.

Carol M. Didden, 39, lives adjacent to the baseball field where Mr. Clinton's helicopter landed. She sported a special T-shirt made for the occasion it showed a global view of Earth with Shepherdstown, Israel and Syria identified on the map. She said she was a little bit wary of the hubbub at first.

"It seems a bit extreme for how small we are, but it is memorable to have the president come and land in your back yard."

A 20-page sketchbook of Shepherdstown's historic sites was created for the delegates to the peace talks. The book was sponsored by a local bank and featured the work of local artists.

"I'd like to think the town will go down in history in the same way of the Wye River Accord and the Camp David Accord. I'd like to see the Shepherdstown Accords," said town recorder James A. Schmitt.

"In some sixth-grade civics class in some place in Ohio, they will have the Shepherdstown peace talks as significant," he added.

"And everyone will say, 'Where is West Virginia?' " he joked.

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