The Port of Baltimore lost its most dedicated advocate this month week with the death of Helen Delich Bentley at age 92. Bentley spent more than three decades, in the newsroom, on television and in Washington promoting the port she rightly viewed as the economic engine of the region.
Bentley came to Baltimore after obtaining a journalism degree from University of Missouri. She covered shipping for the Baltimore Sun newspaper starting in the 1940’s when most female reporters covered home and fashion topics. She made her way to the piers and won the trust of union bosses and longshoremen with fair reporting. Later, she hosted a weekly television show, “The Port That Built a City and a State,” that aired locally for 15 years, providing in-depth coverage on the history and commerce of the port in its heyday.
After leaving journalism to serve as the chair of the Federal Maritime Commission under presidents Nixon and Ford, Bentley won a seat in congress in 1982. Understanding that deepening the approaches to Baltimore to 50′ was critical in order to keep the port competitive, she fought doggedly in Washington to make it happen. Her advocacy paid off, as Baltimore became one of the only East Coast ports to be ready to accommodate the neo-Panamax ships transiting the expanded Panama Canal.
Bentley could be cantankerous and salty, but she was also incredibly effective. Everyone in the maritime community in Baltimore has a “Helen story.” Two years ago, she threw herself a huge 90th birthday party and one after another, politicians, shipping executives, and labor leaders told tales of being cajoled, yelled at, and hustled by Helen – all in the name of advancing the port. Bentley had to be persuasive to cement the Port as a leader on the East Coast in spite of its geographical disadvantage: Remember, Baltimore is 180 miles from the Atlantic.
Bentley’s greatest gift – and lasting legacy – was bestowed by Maryland’s then governor, Bob Ehrlich, in 2006. The Port she defended so ardently was named in her honor. While Bentley may be gone, the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore ensures her contributions will not soon be forgotten.