Helen Delich Bentley: My Recollections

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Before the word “Feminist” was coined, Helen Delich Bentley had already created the iconic image of one. She did it by fearlessly, and with skill and tenacity, working her butt off.

Bentley died on August 6, 2016, at age 92, in Timonium, Baltimore County. It’s fair to say, she had a darn good run.

The “Baltimore Sun,” Bentley’s “newspaper,” ran a lengthy tribute to her the very next day, authored by Michael Dresser. (1)

The piece recounted Bentley’s fantastic career as a “Sun” reporter and maritime editor; as a producer of the popular TV show, the “Port that Built a City and State”; her ten years as a member of the House of Representatives; her chairmanship of the Federal Maritime Commission; and various other noteworthy public achievements.

These things are all well-known. What I want to relate here are the stories of the first and the last time that I met this amazing woman. Let me set the initial scene:

Back in the mid-1950s, I joined Local 829 of the International Longshoremens Association (ILA). I was 18 years old. It was located in the 1200 block of Hull Street in Locust Point – just opposite where the popular pub/eatery “Hull Street Blues” is today. Our home was on the same block, just a few houses up the street.

My father, the late Richard P. Hughes, Sr., was a boss on the docks for the Aloca Steamship Company, then at Pier 9 N/S Locust Point. He loaned me the $180 to join the local.

You remember the legendary movie, “On the Waterfront?” Well, this was the final era for it. It was in its last hurrah, as the container ships and modernization loomed on the horizon. Colorful Marlon Brando like dockworkers, with their ubiquitous “stevedore hook” hanging in their back pockets, would soon pass from the setting.

I started working as an extra – picking up a job with a stevedoring gang here and there. I liked hanging out at the union hall with my cronies, playing cards and just shooting the breeze.

Herb Pearce, a neighbor of mine then, was the President of Local 829. He was an imposing figure, who looked and dressed like a movie star. He was also a darn good amateur softball player – a home run slugger at the plate.

The caretaker for our union hall was a hillbilly from West Virginia named – I’m not making this up – John Strange! He also worked as an extra stevedore when they needed one. Strange also liked his drink, so Pearce had to keep an eye on him. He normally slept in a small room in the back of the hall.

Pearce got into some kind of trouble as the president of Local 829. I don’t remember the details, but an emergency meeting was called to deal with it. Pearce was potentially facing serious charges and possibly dismissal. The meeting was at night and the hall was packed full – SRO.

There was a lot of yelling and cursing going on. Some idiot set off a firecracker! John Strange was so drunk he couldn’t stand up straight and was badly singing his ass off. The cry went up: “Throw that bum out!” But then somebody else pitched in: “You can’t throw him out, his dues are paid up!” Solution: They locked him in a back room behind the stage which meant that all during the meeting from hell you could hear him screaming his bloody head off.

I was standing in the back of the hall when there was a loud banging on the front door. When it was opened I could see there was a woman trying to get in. It was Helen Delich! (2) I knew her mug from the TV show. The sergeant-at-arms said firmly, “get f…… lost!” Delich persisted pushing, shoving and barking loudly: “This is a public meeting.” The predicable response from the union guy: “Go f… y…….!,” as they jockeyed back and forth.

Then I spotted a cop. It was Sergeant Burke from the Southern District. He gently grabbed Delich’s arm and told her that the meeting was for “members only.” It was only then that the feisty and irate Delich backed off. Absent Burke’s appearance, I think she would have spent the night out there banging away on the front door, then leading to God knows what.

As for the heated meeting, after a lot of vitriol, Pearce, who was a masterful public speaker, stood up and told his side of the story. After a brilliant 15-minute spiel, he had a majority of the members, including myself, standing up cheering for him. By acclamation all charges were withdrawn.

Pearce is deceased. Local 829 is now part of labor history, having merged with Local 858 into Local 333, on December 3, 1970.

That brings me to the last time I saw Helen. It was at a funeral Mass for my brother, Richard, on September 19, 2013. (3) At his death, he was the retired head of the 65,000 membered ILA national union.

Helen spoke with sincere affection at his funeral, held at Our Lady of Good Counsel RC Church in Locust Point. As the quintessential authority on the maritime industry, her kind words about Richard and her deep and genuine admiration for his work, meant a lot to not only his family, but to his colleagues on the waterfront. It was, indeed, a beautiful send off for brother Richard.

Helen Delich Bentley – Feminist icon – and a class act if there ever was one.

Notes:

1. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/obituaries/bs-md-ob-helen-bentley-2016-20160806-story.html

2. Helen Delich married William Roy Bentley, a teacher, in 1959. The ceremony took place at Christ  United Church in Locust Point.

3. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/obituaries/bs-md-ob-richard-hughes-20130913-story.html

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