Though short in physical stature, few if any people had a larger or longer-lasting presence than Helen Delich Bentley when it came to promoting the American maritime industry and in particular the Port of Baltimore.
Bentley died Aug. 6 at age 92, at her home in Timonium, Maryland. She had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
“There will never be another one like her,” stated SIU President Michael Sacco. “She was a fighter for what she believed in – and she believed in our industry and the men and women who work in it. No one could top her dedication and devotion to the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. All of us will miss her tremendously.”
Bentley was born in Nevada in 1923 to Serbian-American parents. After graduating from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism in 1944, she was hired by the Baltimore Sun newspaper to cover the maritime beat. She started writing a column, “Around the Waterfront,” which was syndicated in a number of other papers. That column eventually evolved to include a TV program, “The Port That Built a City,” in 1950.
She spent 24 years as a maritime reporter and editor before being appointed by President Nixon to serve as the Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) in 1969. She was the first female chairman of the FMC, which she led for six years before returning to the Baltimore Sun. After nine years, she ran for office and was elected as a Republican to represent the Second District of Maryland. From 1985 to 1995, she was a strong ally of maritime in Congress, aggressively pursuing mariners’ rights and labor issues on Capitol Hill.
Former Representative Duncan L. Hunter, who held office from 1981-2009 and is the father of current Representative Duncan D. Hunter, once said Bentley “made her presence felt in every room she ever entered.”
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, dean of Maryland’s congressional delegation, was a longtime friend of Bentley.
“She fought for jobs and she fought for the little people and she always put people and their opportunity to earn a living over petty partisan politics,” said Mikulski. “Helen was a fighter and she believed in constituent service and she took on bureaucracy and foreign governments to get jobs in our community.”
After an unsuccessful bid for governor, Bentley founded a business consulting firm which advised and lobbied for clients on behalf of international trade, U.S. shipping and U.S. manufacturing. Through her tireless advocacy for the Port of Baltimore, she helped to make the port number one in the nation for automobile imports and breakbulk cargo, as well as one of the few East Coast ports that is “Neo-panamaxready.”
In 2006, the Port of Baltimore was officially renamed the “Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore” by then-Governor Robert Ehrlich. During a speech made at Bentley’s 90th birthday celebration, Ehrlich was quoted as describing the 500 members of the crowd as, “a roomful of people who both love her and fear her – but not in that order.”
“Congresswoman Bentley worked with tenacity, energy, and passion on behalf of her constituents, making her a rare breed in politics and a role model to public servants across Maryland,” Governor Larry Hogan said. “She was a trailblazer for women in media and government, a longtime champion for manufacturing, maritime issues, and the Port of Baltimore which proudly bears her name as an everlasting tribute to her achievements.”
As a testament to her lasting impact on the industry, it seems that every prominent figure in maritime has a story to tell involving Bentley. The Washington Post recalled a classic Bentley incident during a congressional hearing when an admiral told her that parts the Navy needed were cheaper in South Korea. She responded, “Well, Admiral, they make admirals cheaper in Korea, too, and maybe we should buy some.”
Current FMC Chairman Mario Cordero said, “Helen Bentley was a pioneer in many different fields and industries, but she will forever be remembered for her work on maritime matters. From the newsroom to the Baltimore waterfront, from the halls of Congress to the chair of the Federal Maritime Commission, she distinguished herself in each and every endeavor she undertook. It is a testament to the fortitude and tenacity that she was known for that she remained an active, forceful, and articulate advocate on shipping and port issues to the very end of her life. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to know her and I join the many who are saddened by her departure.”
Bentley was instrumental in establishing Baltimore’s Maritime Industries Academy, one of the first high schools in the nation to promote a maritime curriculum. She also helped ensure the preservation of the SS John W. Brown, one of only two operating Liberty ships in the nation.
“Helen played an absolutely vital role in our obtaining the Brown,” said former Project Liberty Ship Chairman Capt. Brian H. Hope, a retired Chesapeake Bay pilot. “The Coast Guard commandant told us we needed to get a bill through Congress that exempted the Brown from modern ship passenger regulations.… The Brown arrived in Baltimore in 1998, and the first person up the gangway was Helen Delich Bentley.”
A recipient of numerous honorary degrees, Bentley has also christened countless vessels and was the annual emcee of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea awards dinner.
Her husband, William Roy Bentley, passed away in 2003. The couple had no children.
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