ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Helen Delich Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman who was an expert on the maritime industry, died Saturday of brain cancer. She was 92.


Former Maryland Congresswoman, Helen Delich Bentley. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Key Kidder, a spokesman for the family, said Bentley died shortly after 1:30 p.m. at her home in Timonium, where she was receiving hospice care.

Bentley, a Republican, served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the state’s 2nd Congressional District for 10 years from 1985 to 1995. She was known for a tenacious and gruff political style that produced results, especially when it came to her beloved Port of Baltimore. The port was named after her in 2006.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who described Bentley as one of Maryland’s most dedicated and respected leaders, ordered state flags flown at half-staff in her honor.

“During a recent visit with her, I was inspired to see that the same spirit and determination that defined both her public and personal life was still very much present right up to the end,” Hogan said in a prepared statement.

“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,” Hogan added. “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.”

Bentley first ran for public office in 1980, when she lost to veteran Rep. Clarence Long. She lost again two years later, but in 1984 she defeated Long.

By the end of her first term, she helped pass a bill allowing a 50-foot channel to be dredged into the Baltimore port, making it the only East Coast port with that distinction. She described it as one of her most significant accomplishments.

“That deep channel is a major reason why the Port of Baltimore is well positioned today to accommodate the largest ships in the world and continue serving as one of Maryland’s top economic generators,” said James White, executive director of the port.

Bentley ran in Maryland’s Republican gubernatorial primary in 1994, losing to Ellen Sauerbrey. After that loss, she served as president of Helen Bentley & Associates Inc., an international trade consulting firm.

Before politics, Bentley worked as a reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun from 1945 to 1969. She was the newspaper’s first woman to cover maritime news and quickly proved she could hold her own on the Baltimore waterfront. In 1954, when a dockworker compared her nose to a ski jump, Bentley punched him in the jaw.

White said Bentley was a pioneer not just as a female reporter covering the waterfront, but in using local television as a medium to educate people about maritime issues. Her weekly show, “The Port That Built a City and State”, ran from 1950 to 1965.

In 1969, she became the first woman to make the dangerous trip through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage. Known for her salty tongue, she ran afoul of the Federal Communications Commission, which happened to be monitoring the ship’s radio when she was filing her story home.

“She swore like a sailor,” the FCC reported.

“I just used a common Anglo-Saxon expletive to express my impatience with a rewrite man,” Bentley said at the time.

Bentley became one of the nation’s leading experts on the maritime industry. In 1969, President Nixon appointed her to a six-year term as chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, making her the highest-ranking woman in his administration. After her term on the commission was up, she launched her own maritime consulting business.

Kidder said a memorial service will be held in mid-October in Baltimore.


Brian Witte

Associated Press