The One and Only Helen Bentley

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 8, 2016 – She was crusty to a fault. Outrageously opinionated. Cantankerous. Indefatigable. Unrelenting. Incredibly effective. Helen Delich Bentley was truly sui generis.

That’s a Latin term meaning “without a counterpart or equal; unique.” Bentley, who died Aug. 6 at the age of 92, indeed was one of a kind.

The One and Only Helen Bentley

Helen Delich Bentley

Where would the Port of Baltimore be without her? For a stunning 70 years she fought like a tiger in every way imaginable to promote Maryland’s biggest and most important economic engine.

Her journalistic coverage at the Baltimore Sun of the port created a national and international reputation for Charm City’s maritime business and for Bentley.

In the process, she shattered the glass ceiling for female journalists, entering the masculine world of the docks in the 1940s with such effectiveness she become the only female maritime editor and the best-known shipping reporter in the world.

Along the way she found time to write, produce and narrate an award-winning television series about the Port of Baltimore that ran for a stunning 15 years.

Maritime Boss

Bentley could cuss like a sailor, ream out union bosses for threatening the port’s stability and talk turkey to shipping executives about the urgency of maintaining labor peace. She settled more than one strike and gained widespread applause for ending Baltimore’s sorry reputation as the only port where longshoremen refused to work in the rain.

Then it was on to Washington, where she bulled her way into the chairmanship of the Federal Maritime Commission – the highest female appointee in the Nixon administration. She spouted off about protecting U.S. trade and building more ships in U.S. ports like Baltimore. Meanwhile, Bentley used her salty language often enough that Time magazine colorfully referred to her as “Tugboat Annie.”

Bentley’s political activism nearly got her in serious prosecutorial trouble when she delivered a bag of illicit cash to Republican campaign higher-ups during the Watergate era.

She bounced back, though, and ran for Congress against entrenched Democratic Rep. Clarence D. Long, an ardent foe of expanding Baltimore’s port if it meant dumping dredged spoils at Hart and Miller Islands off the coast of eastern Baltimore County in his district.

As usual with Bentley, her persistence paid off and she beat Long on her third attempt. She used her time in Congress to bash Japan and Asian nations for their trade policies, pushed hard to gain appropriations for the Port of Baltimore and fought to empower women.

Ten years later, Bentley entered the race for governor as the heavy favorite only to lose shockingly in the Republican primary to ideological conservative Ellen Sauerbrey. Bentley, a pragmatic conservative, was pilloried for daring to have worked with Democrats – especially Gov. William Donald Schaefer – to further the Port of Baltimore.

Bentley’s anger and bitterness over this betrayal of all she had done over the decades to uplift the state GOP led to severed relationships that were never restored.

Port Business and Antiques

But again, she bounced back, getting more involved in her husband Bill’s large antique store on York Road and opening a highly successful consulting business where she continued to be an implacable force for the Port of Baltimore. Somehow she juggled conflicting connections to the Maryland Port Administration, shipping companies and local and international labor executives.

Now wonder Gov. Bob Ehrlich named the Port of Baltimore after Bentley. It was an unexpected honor richly deserved.

I first encountered Helen when she was winding up her newspaper career and I was starting mine.

She would rush into The Sun’s city room close to deadline like a Nevada cyclone, a whirlwind of passion returning from the docks with a hot story to pound out on her typewriter and a maritime section to oversee. Never pausing to take off her hat – a cross between a Mexican sombrero and an Easter bonnet that was made to impress – Bentley started screaming at her staff in her usual scatological way, sending some scurrying while others simply returned her epithets.

It was a daily sight to behold, especially for a naive reporter unused to the Bentley phenomenon.

Over the years, I got to know Helen quite well, covering some of her political races and interviewing her frequently after I joined the editorial page. She was always fun to interview and always full of frank, pointed opinions.

Crusty but Lovable

Helen Bentley also had a soft and endearing side. While she could be infuriatingly brutal with her staff, she could be touchingly sweet to them moments later.

After I reluctantly took a buyout from The (Setting) Sun, Helen not only showed up for a farewell party some friends put together, she gave me one of her favorite antiques – a statue of a young British newspaper “hawker.”

She was, indeed, sui generis.

Even in her final weeks, Bentley continued to defy predictions, hanging on relentlessly like she always did. I visited her with one of her closest friends, David Blumberg, within the past month and found her as feisty as ever.

“What do you think the expanded Panama Canal means for business at the Port of Baltimore,” I asked Helen.

“Not a damn thing,” she acerbically replied. Bentley never beat around the bush, even while battling brain cancer.

Soon afterward, to my surprise, a letter appeared in The Sun from Helen voicing full support for Republican nominee Donald Trump. She never stopped pushing the ball forward, even while in hospice care.

The Port of Baltimore never had a better friend. Helen Bentley accomplished so much in so many ways.

People living in Baltimore and Maryland are the recipients of her largesse. Her lighthouse may have been de-commissioned, but her deeds stand as a permanent reminder of what she gave us.

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4 thoughts on “The One and Only Helen Bentley

  1. Bob Erlandson

    Helen Delich Bentley may have been the “grandmother” of the Port of Baltimore but in 1967 she was the “stepmother” of the Port of Saigon, South Vietnam. It was a demonstration of her great effectiveness as a reporter.

    Ships bringing cargo to the city had to travel a treacherous 45-mile course up the Saigon River from the coast, many times enduring Viet Cong sniper fire along the way.

    There was so much cargo and war materiel that it couldn’t be unloaded and moved out fast enough to prevent huge downriver back-ups. Theft of goods and equipment was rampant.

    Helen arrived in Saigon and in true Helen style began interviewing every port official she could get her hands on, civilian and military. She had officials literally lined up outside her Hotel Caravelle room almost every morning awaiting her “interrogation.”

    She wrote scathingly of the incompetence and bureaucracy . Her reports led to changes to ease the gridlock in Saigon, particularly shifting some cargo operations to Cam Ranh Bay, a port north of Saigon. Officials in Vietnam knew that Helen’s reporting was read in the White House and that she wouldn’t hesitate to do what it took to get the job done.

    Helen was both irrepressible and irascible when things didn’t go her way. She had a mouth like a longshoreman that once got her into big trouble and led to a personal joke.

    In 1969, Helen was the only woman/reporter aboard an icebreaker crossing the Northwest Passage and used ship-to-shore radio to dictate her stories back to Baltimore. One time the connection didn’t work well and she cut loose with a string of profanity over the international air waves. The ship’s owner immediately suspended use of the radio by reporters.

    I sent her a cable from Rio, “Helen, nobody likes a goddamn dirty mouth,” which remained a joke between us for the next 47 years. I even used it during a visit to her at GBMC – and she responded appropriately.

    The Reader’s Digest wrote about “unforgettable people”; Helen Bentley certainly fit that description. I met her when I joined The Sun in 1955 and watching her operate was a lesson in tenacious, accurate and, above all, honest reporting. She never pulled her punches on the job but she’d also give you a pat on the back off the job. She was a great reporter and a good friend. RIP, Helen.

  2. Tom Koch

    A well written story worthy of one of your colleagues, nice job Barry. She was one of a kind!

  3. ajax eastman

    Hi Barry, Great eulogy for Helen! In support of her crustiness, I would add that when I went in for a root canal, I told the dentist that I did not want novicane (I dig my finger nails into my palms because I hate it when the novicane wears off) to which he replied in awe that the only other person who refused novicane was Helen Delich Bentley!

    Cheer! Ajax

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