Anyone growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s would be hard pressed to avoid the Reader’s Digest, which was read by, well, just about everybody, including a lot of folks too pretentious to actually admit they read it. You could find it at the barbershop or the doctor’s office if you didn’t get it at home and every issue seemed to include something you would find interesting or informative or both.
Every issue contained a short piece titled “My Most Unforgettable Person” by the famous and ordinary about men and women who might also be famous or unknown, but never ordinary. I loved them and have often speculated on who I might write about if I ever had the opportunity to write about “My Most Unforgettable Person.” I haven’t seen the Digest in years, don’t know if it exists and have no idea whether, if it does, it’s still carrying such articles. The problem, it seems to me, is that there fewer really unforgettable people these days than there were “back in the day.”
For me at least, there’s one fewer now with Saturday’s passing of Helen Delich Bentley, truly one of the most unforgettable people anyone who knew her had ever met. Helen was 92 years old and had been actively lobbying for Baltimore-area concerns until felled by a brain tumor last year. Those who never knew her missed something.
Helen was a Serb, born in 1923 in Nevada, where her father worked as a miner. She grew up lusting after a career in journalism at a time when women in the newsroom were mainly confined to the society pages when they weren’t writing about gardening. That didn’t stand in her way. She got her journalism degree from the University of Missouri, one of the best schools in the country, and set out to make her mark, eventually ending up in Baltimore, where the Baltimore Sun hired her not to follow garden clubs, but to report on the rough-and-tumble of life on the docks in one of the nation’s busiest ports. She loved it and fit right in. She was as tough talking and as down to earth as the men she covered and became an institution during her 25 years with the paper.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon, at the behest of former Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, who he had chosen as his running mate, offered Helen a seat on the Federal Maritime Commission. The lady found the offer unacceptable and turned it down until the president sweetened the offer and made her chairman of the commission and the highest-ranking woman in his new administration.
I met her then, but got to know her a bit better in her next incarnation as a Republican congresswoman representing the area she loved. She was as profane and outspoken in Congress as she had been on the docks. In her 10 years in Congress, she fought tirelessly for the city and port she loved. While she was in Congress, it was discovered that Japan’s Toshiba Corp. was selling stealth technology to the Soviet Union to make its submarines more difficult to detect. I helped arrange a press conference demanding a congressional investigation of the scandal, and Helen showed up carting a Toshiba radio and a sledge hammer. When the cameras arrived, she took the hammer and everyone ducked as she made her point, lest they be sprayed by radio parts.
Later, former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tom O’Neill and I worked with a group in Chicago with ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Helen was on the board, along with a number of Serbian Orthodox church officials. The board chairman was a Serbian Pittsburgh city councilman who, like many local politicians, loved his own voice. In the midst of a wandering presentation that was putting all of us to sleep, Helen, at the other end of the table, banged her fist, glared at him and said, “Shut the [expletive] up.” The priests almost fell off their chairs, the rest of us woke up and the meeting went on as he did as he was told. It would have made a great movie scene.
Helen Bentley was from a different and perhaps more interesting time. She was barely five feet tall, but bigger than life. In 2006, the City of Baltimore named the port she loved for her. It was the least they could do for a woman who helped turn it into what it is today and who nobody should be able to forget.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.
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