Sunday, November 17, 2013

Helen Bentley and friends celebrate her 90th

Not many parties end with back-to-back singing of “Happy Birthday” and “God Bless America", but those were the main sentiments Sunday afternoon for one of the Baltimore area’s most celebrated public figures – Helen Delich Bentley.
Helen Bentley (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

And in a “roast” leading up to the songs, many of Maryland’s top politicians and business leaders gave voice to their love for (and yes, even fear of) the 90-year-old former newspaper reporter,  Federal Maritime Commission chairman and five-term congresswoman.

Hundreds of invited guests from all aspects of her life -- including relatives, extended family, even her dentist – heard testimony from the likes of congressional leaders and former governors on the influence Helen had both on them and the city and state. The turnout filled the main hall of the waterfront Baltimore Museum of Industry, which was decorated with photos showing scenes from her life, including her husband, antique dealer Bill Bentley, who died a decade ago.

Matter not that she is a Republican. No less a liberal Democrat than the Baltimore area’s  Elijah Cummings, among the most senior African Americans in congress, called her “my dear sister” who “helped me to dream bigger dreams.”

It was Helen, Cummings said, who first told him he was being named chairman of the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Affairs and, more bluntly, to “take it.” This notwithstanding his tendency to get seasick “even on small boats” and that “I can’t swim.” A day later, Nancy Pelosi delivered the offer, with the admonition that  “I want you to keep it a secret,” he said.

Nothing affecting the Port of Baltimore could be kept secret from Helen Bentley, who began reporting on maritime affairs at The Baltimore Sun soon after her hiring in 1945 and held the title of maritime editor when newly-inaugurated President Richard Nixon changed the course of her life with an appointment to head the maritime commission in 1969.

I intersected with Helen during the last year and a half of her newspaper days, mostly as an editorial assistant  and young reporter taking dictation over the phone and through a static-faulted dictation recording device to which she radioed or phoned in some of her stories from distant assignments – interspersed with salty language when that primitive technology seemed to be uncooperative.  Legend has it that she could out-cuss the most-hardened longshoremen.

As a longtime denizen of the city desk, including nearly a quarter-century as a rewriteman and my final six years as night metro editor, I had the bad habit of answering phones on the first ring, and knew many of the regular callers simply by voice – Helen among them.

I rarely saw her, and that she even remembered who I was over the years was flattering. But she seemed to remember people of all sorts, among them The Sun’s longtime telephone operator, the late Betty Cramer who, after leaving the newspaper because of multiple sclerosis, received Christmas baskets every year, and other help, from the congresswoman.

The printed invitation to her party was headed by its honorary co-chairs, former Maryland Governors Marvin Mandel, a Democrat, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who, before his lone four-year term in that job, had succeeded Helen in her House of Representatives seat. It was Ehrlich who prompted the renaming of what is now the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, as part of its 300th anniversary celebration in 2006.

 Mandel, now 93, spoke briefly of Helen and some of the notable guests as “the people who made this the great state it is.”

“I thought this was a memorial service, and then I saw her,” joked Ehrlich, looking around at what he called “a room full of people who both love her and fear her.”  He also told of Helen’s influence on his life – and his dating habits. He said she disapproved of some of his girlfriends, but eventually found one she deemed right, and how he’d bring her over to visit with Helen on a date. It was an odd threesome, but Helen would put him to work moving heavy things around her house while she sat and talked to the young lawyer friend, Kendel, who would eventually become his wife and, during his term as governor, Maryland’s “first lady.”

The state’s senior U.S. senator, Barbara Mikulski, recalled a time early in her political career when Helen Bentley was pushing for the deepening  of Baltimore’s harbor to accommodate larger ships and disposing of the dredge spoil at tiny Hart and Miller Islands off Baltimore County. Mikulski, with concerns that included fear of possible toxic contaminants, was initially an opponent but said that Helen played a big role in changing her mind.

The project was eventually approved, including a share of federal money. The port channel was deepened, and the enlarged islands eventually became a popular recreation area for boaters.

Former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes noted that Baltimore, in large measure because of Helen’s continued efforts, now is one of just two ports in the nation that can receive the super-size container ships that soon will be accommodated by a deepened and enlarged Panama Canal passageway.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer included Helen as among the four former Republican members of congress present who had identified themselves as members of the Maryland delegation – “not as Republican members of the Maryland delegation” – in a lament that “we’re at a time where we have real polarization, confrontation and gridlock in the Congress of the United States.”

Hoyer also alluded to Helen’s championship of American manufacturing, and how as a congresswoman (and no stranger to a sledgehammer) she staged public bashings of Japanese-made electronics and even an automobile outside the Capitol building. “I have here a letter from the Japanese ambassador that, because we have a mixed crowd here, I won’t read,” Hoyer joked. (There were children in the crowd.)

Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger said even in running against Helen for her old seat when it was vacated by Ehrlich, “we always agreed to fight it out fairly and squarely.”

“Helen and I had 11 debates. After it was over, we shook hands.... She is an adviser to me in the House.”

But it was Cummings, the black Democrat, whose remarks about Helen “as a mentor of mine” were the most emotional and, likely to some, unexpected.

At his request, Cummings said, Helen became a board member of the Baltimore Maritime Industries Academy Foundation, and for seven years has attended its monthly meetings and visited its public high school program that has introduced many teenagers – in particular, the congressman noted, African American children -- to maritime skills and the world of the port.

“The kids love her, and she loves them,” he said, finishing up his remarks by telling her, “I will go to my grave appreciating the impact you’ve had on my life.”

Helen had the last word. A little stooped from the effects of aging, and thus a few inches shorter than she used to be, Helen stood on a low, carpeted riser behind the podium and told about why she wanted to have the huge “birthday bash.”

As the daughter of Serbian immigrant parents and growing up in Ruth, Nevada, she could not recall having had a  birthday party. “You were given a kiss and a piece of cake.”

She added:  “I decided I wanted to see all of this while I was still above ground.”

The invitation specified no gifts, but listed her favorite causes for contributions, among them the museum, the state goodwill vessel Pride of Baltimore, the Maritime Industries Academy Foundation, animal-protection groups, the Bentley scholarship fund at the University of Baltimore, and the one we chose, Wounded Warriors.

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