THE FORMER CONGRESSWOMAN
AND CHIEF CHEERLEADER
OF THE PORT OF BALTIMORE
DIED SATURDAY AT AGE 92
The son of a bitch who caused it!
Feisty to the end, and checking out on her own terms, former Baltimore Sun reporter and Maritime Editor Helen Delich Bentley died Saturday at her home in Lutherville, where she had been in hospice care for more than a month.
The five-term congresswoman and staunch advocate of the Port of Baltimore, whose bi-weekly shipping column was once syndicated in more than 200 newspapers, was 92.
At a Baltimore Sun reunion lunch five years ago, retired Night Editor and former rewrite man Dave Ettlin asked Bentley about her infamous streak of four-letter words on a ship-to-shore telephone in 1969 that caused the Federal Communications Commission to abruptly cut her off the air, an incident which made headlines round the world and embarrassed then-President Richard Nixon, who, with much hoopla, had just appointed her Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission but then refused to swear her in at the Oval Office.
Bentley gleefully described the incident to Ettlin (who was not on rewrite the night of its occurrence), but then pointed a finger at the former Sun reporter and rewrite man who was — AL Forman, now the Managing Editor of Voice of Baltimore — with the admonition, “And there’s the son of a bitch who caused it!”
She was only half-kidding, of course: Bentley was never one to mince words. But she had mellowed in her old age, and had actually begun to use such language as “please” and “thank you,” niceties that were unknown to her throughout her professional life, where she attained praise and notoriety for being crusty and tough.
It was central to her success: She fought her way to the top in professions — newspaper reporting, television and the maritime industry — that were virtually closed to women when she started out. She quickly recognized that the only way she could get ahead in that so-called “man’s world” was to be as tough as nails — and to cuss like a longshoreman.
But deep inside she was always fair- minded and honest; and beneath her gruff exterior beat a heart of gold. She could be the toughest of opponents, but she never forgot or turned her back on a friend.
And she loved the Port of Baltimore, becoming its greatest advocate and supporter — and the namesake for what is likely the first, if not the only, maritime facility in the world to be named for a patron.
As The Sun’s Maritime Editor it was not unusual for her to singlehandedly bring an end to longshore strikes and work stoppages, as well as other labor disputes affecting Baltimore and related U.S. ports, by telephoning union leaders, management represen- tatives, and government officials — simultaneously on three telephones — and beating their heads together for the good of the country.
America First was always her motto, with the Port of Baltimore at the top of the list.
Her final printed commentary — displayed prominently on the Washing- ton Post’s op-ed page (March 4, 2016) — chastised the Republican Party hierarchy for attempting to unfairly block the presidential nomination of Donald Trump, who she noted was winning primaries by “inspiring tens of millions of Americans of all ages, races, religions and ideologies”; and firmly stated that, “If the Republican estab- lishment does not like Trump’s ideas, it should try to beat him fair and square, by capturing the hearts and imaginations of the voters, as Trump has done over the past six months.”
Moreover her initial Voice of Baltimore commentary — PRESIDENT TRUMP! — An idea whose time has come? — predicted early on (Oct. 27, 2015) that Trump could not only win the GOP presidential nomination but that he also could become the next President of the United States.
Just weeks ago she raged against the Maryland news media for “prematurely” reporting her allegedly imminent death. She wasn’t quite ready to go yet then, she said.
Her legacy is beautifully chronicled in a Page 1 obituary written by Michael Dresser with input from obit writer Fred Rasmussen, published Sunday in the Baltimore Sun — click here. And don’t miss the Washington Post’s excellent obituary by Emily Langer — click here.
(Also check out VoB’s Helen Delich Bentley file by clicking here.)
—VoB Staff report
In 1969 the oil conglomerate Exxon/Humble Oil and Refining Company conducted a financial feasibility study to determine whether it would be profitable to transport crude oil from Alaska to the mainland U.S. West Coast by shipping it through the Northwest Passage via tanker, an historic route that had never been traversed commercially for such a purpose before.
So the bow of the S.S. Manhattan was outfitted at Port Newark with icebreaking equipment, and an historic test run was made. A press contingent of reporters from around the world was billeted on-board the ship, with Helen Bentley being the only female reporter on the trip.
President Nixon had just appointed Bentley to the highest post of any woman in his administration, but she delayed being sworn in until after the voyage of the Manhattan, during which she filed numerous Page 1 scoops for the Baltimore Sun relative to the history-making event.
On the night the FCC cut her off the air she was dictating a syndicated column to reporter AL Forman (who was on rewrite that night and who frequently edited her columns) using a ship-to-shore connection that was being relayed through a ham-radio operator in Iowa, with the transmission being frequently garbled.
At a crucial point in the story Forman was unable to understand the name of an obscure official being quoted and had to ask her several times to repeat and spell the name in question.
As the phone connection was one-way only — each speaker was required to say “Over” at the end of each transmission and then wait for the other to respond — her voice became more and more agitated, culminating in an eruption of “expletives deleted” followed by silence as the FCC terminated the transmission.
The Sun’s Night Editor thought the incident unimportant enough to deny Forman’s request to follow up to determine what had happened. But the next morning the Washington Daily News (a long- defunct tabloid in the style of the New York Daily News and N.Y. Post) ran Bentley’s picture on its cover, with the headline, “Tugboat Bentley Sinks the Manhattan!”
The story made headlines round the world, leading Nixon a week later to refuse to swear Bentley in as Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, despite having announced her appointment a month earlier with a major ceremony in the Oval Office.
Vice President Spiro Agnew swore her in in an unheralded ceremony at FMC headquarters in a small office building then located on 14th Street.
And the shipment of crude oil by tanker through Baffin Bay and the Northwest Passage proved financially unfeasible, leading to the pipeline that is currently in use.