Monday’s first snow of the year brought a day off of school and plenty of sledding photo ops for Baltimoreans. But it was the opposite of a winter wonderland for motorists on a 50-mile stretch of I-95 in between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, many of whom found themselves stuck on the highway overnight due to icy conditions, a foot of snow, and disabled trucks blocking multiple lanes.
With temperatures dropping into the teens and no access to food or water, it was a dangerous situation for drivers still stranded on Tuesday morning, but a couple traveling from Ellicott City to North Carolina came up with an idea to feed those around them with the help of Charm City’s own H&S bakery—which was founded by Greek immigrants in 1943, and has remained in the family ever since.
Ellicott City native Casey Holihan, and her husband, John Noe, were stuck a few cars behind a Schmidt Baking Company truck. While waiting for conditions to improve, after nearly 21 hours, they had the thought to call the company—one of the many retail brands distributed by H&S, which is headquartered on South Caroline Street in Fells Point. They asked if the driver would consider sharing some of the truck’s precious cargo.
“We kind of called them on a whim,” Holihan says. “We definitely did not think anything would come of it.”
But less than 20 minutes later, she received a personal call from H&S co-owner and senior vice president of transportation, Chuck Paterakis. He asked if she was able to approach the truck and give the phone to the driver, Ron Hill.
“I’m a believer,” says Hill, who lives in Harford County. “I was in the back of my truck praying and reading my word yesterday morning. It was overwhelming. I was weeping and didn’t understand why. I was thinking, ‘Should I go in the back of this truck, start handing out bread, and catch the weight later?’ As I was sitting at the steering wheel thinking about it, I saw a lady walk up to the side of my truck.”
With Paterakis’ encouragement, Hill—along with Holihan, Noe, and a few other good samaritans—split up and began trekking along the icy terrain to distribute packages of potato rolls and split-top wheat loaves.
“From what I can gather it was very icy, slippery, and they were on somewhat of a hill,” Paterakis says. “There were a lot of people who were hungry, but didn’t want to get out of the car or open the door because they had limited gas and didn’t want the heat to escape.”
Adds Holihan: “We were going up to windows holding bread up, and many people were like, ‘How much money do you want for it?’ When we said it was free, some of them were almost moved to tears. They were just so relieved.”
Paterakis estimates that the truck—which was headed from Baltimore to a distribution center in Norfolk, Virginia—was carrying nearly 8,000 units of bread, and that 500 loaves were donated to drivers in the jam. But it’s not an uncommon practice for H&S, which has given nearly three million loaves to various organizations in need throughout the pandemic. (Among them was the food bank at Hill’s church in Elkridge, which donated 70 trays of bread to local families for Thanksgiving.)
“When I heard from Casey, all of these things were going through my mind, but the main thing was that this is our core value,” Paterakis says. “We’re cultured to help out in situations when things are desperate.”
Paterakis, who now runs the company with his three brothers, credits those values to his father, the late John Paterakis, Sr.
“My parents instilled this in us from the day we were born,” Paterakis says. “My father made this business from nothing, but he was very humble. He never bragged. If you asked him why he did all of this, he would say, ‘It’s for my kids.’”
Thankfully, all vehicles were cleared from the jam by Tuesday evening, and no injuries or deaths resulted. After 27 hours, Holihan and Noe—who happened to have shovels in the trunk of their rental car—worked with others around them to clear a path on a nearby exit ramp.
Holihan says that the entire experience of distributing the bread, “restored her faith in humanity tenfold.”
“It was an interesting little community we created,” she adds. “A couple hours earlier we were all honking and upset with the traffic and the frustration. But then you remember that these are real people. They have lives. We got to talk to some of them and pet their dogs and ask them about where they were going. It was a little pocket of humanity and community that we created on that stretch of I-95 that won’t be forgotten.”
Adds Paterakis: “It proves there is goodness in the world…I just wish we could have supplied them some butter or peanut butter, too.”