Happy 90th, Helen Bentley!

By Barry Rascovar

November 27 — HELEN DELICH BENTLEY turns 90 tomorrow. Not only is her longevity remarkable, her accomplishments are truly exceptional.

First female maritime newspaper editor. First female chair of the Federal Maritime Commission. First woman to lead any federal regulatory agency. Five-term member of Congress.

Producer, writer and narrator of a ground-breaking, award-winning television program on maritime activity in Baltimore.

The nation’s preeminent advocate for the maritime industry and, especially, for the Port of Baltimore that now bears her name.

Helen Delich Bentley

Helen Delich Bentley

What a lifetime of achievements.

None of it came easy. Her Serbian parents emigrated to a small town in Nevada that no longer exists. They barely could make ends meet.

She had to battle to succeed. It became a template for the rest of his life.

One Tenacious Woman

Her never-give-up attitude, and her unyielding determination, sets her apart.

So does her feisty, pugnacious and grouchy attitude. She still swears like a sailor and rarely hands out a compliment without a few snarls thrown in.

Before “women’s lib” arrived, Helen Bentley was knocking down barriers.

She remains a legend on the docks and wharfs of Baltimore — a man’s world which she dared enter, ask pointed questions and cover extensively as a journalist.

She didn’t just liberate the waterfront for women, Helen Delich Bentley became the nation’s most important and most influential maritime journalist.

Then she went to Washington as a female regulator in another man’s world. She shook up the FMC. Everyone knew who was in charge for those six years.

Rep. Helen Bentley

Helen Bentley at Ship Christening

Next, Bentley had the tenacity and intestinal fortitude to take on a deeply entrenched congressional incumbent from eastern Baltimore County, Clarence D. Long, because of his unyielding opposition to port expansion.

She lost the first time. She lost the second time. Yet she refused to admit defeat.

On the third try, Helen Bentley did the impossible: She knocked off “Doc” Long, a 22-year congressional veteran and power in the House.

Never Give Up

Few politicians have the gumption to spend six years, and two losing tries, in search of an election day upset. Not Helen Bentley.

Her politics are Republican and deeply conservative. Yet her friends include left-wing Democrats.

Bentley’s ideology never stood in the way of her pragmatic goals and objectives. Results are what counts for her.

Fasionable Helen Bentley

Fashionista Bentley

It was striking at her 90th birthday party at the Baltimore Museum of Industry that praise came from leaders of maritime unions and maritime business leaders, from Democratic and Republican congressmen.

Helen Delich Bentley has been a trailblazer all her life. To use a Latin phrase, she is sui generis“of its own kind/genus” or “unique in its characteristics.” 

So as we celebrate a later-than-normal Thanksgiving Day, let’s also toast the Grande Dame of the U.S. maritime industry — journalist, regulator, congresswoman, advocate and defender par excellence of the Port of Baltimore.

Helen Delich Bentley is indeed one of a kind.

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