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Herbert B. Groh, 92, led a mariner's life from Baltimore

Harbor pilot and tugboat captain helped preservation of Liberty ship John W. Brown

By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

7:20 PM EDT, June 9, 2013

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Herbert B. Groh, whose life as a mariner spanned the gamut from running errands on the city docks of the 1930s to work as a harbor pilot and tugboat captain, and who helped rescue and rehabilitate the Liberty ship-turned-floating-museum John W. Brown, died June 6 after a heart attack at the Catonsville Commons nursing home. He was 92.

"I think he was one of a kind, or at least one of a very few," said Michael J. Schneider, a past chairman of the Project Liberty Ship project that guided the restoration of the John W. Brown. "He had to work very hard to get everything he achieved, nothing came easy to him."

He worked hard to rise up through the ranks, and he was very proud of the fact that he was a docking master."

Born in 1920 and raised on a farm near York, Pa., Mr. Groh endured a hard-luck childhood. His mother abandoned her family when he was 4. Shortly thereafter, his father moved the family to Baltimore. He died when Mr. Groh was 13, leaving him to be raised by an aunt.

"As a kid, I went to bed hungry, woke up hungry all the time," Mr. Groh told author Ernest M. Imhoff for his 2006 book, "Good Shipmates, The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown, Volume 1."

"I was poorly clothed in school. The other kids all brought lunches in brown paper bags. I didn't have those lunches," Mr. Groh said in the book.

At age 15, he found his way down to Baltimore's city docks, and was immediately taken by the energy and activity there. Looking to find a job, he asked a tugboat captain for work, but was told he was too young.

"There's got to be a way," Mr. Groh thought. As related in Mr. Imhoff's book, "I now had a goal. I looked around and saw all these barges, tugs, boats, ships come in and out. All this movement. Exciting. This was the life for me."

A year later — after being told by a nun, "Nothing good will come of you" — Mr. Groh quit school, determined to find work on the docks. He started doing go-fer work, and in 1937 landed a job as an apprentice deckhand on a dredge, the Defender.

Over the next 65 years, Mr. Groh — a self-described, and proud, "survivor" — was a fixture on the Baltimore harbor. From 1939 until 1982, he worked for Curtis Bay Towing Co. Drafted into the Army during World War II, he spent a year before being honorably discharged — so he could return to Baltimore and continue guiding ships through the harbor.

Mr. Groh retired from Curtis Bay in 1982, but the lure of life on and around the harbor drew him back. From 1982 to 1996, he worked at Penn Maritime, evaluating and instructing masters and pilots. He continued to serve as a consultant and instructor, advising the Naval Academy on various maritime matters and teaching apprentice pilots proper docking procedures, retiring for a second time in 2002.

By his own estimate, he had been aboard about 50,000 ships during his working lifetime.

He had a long history with Liberty ships, the bare-bones, quickly assembled freighters that would play a major role in moving men and materials during World War II. He served on the tug that led the very first Liberty ship, the Patrick Henry, from Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield Yard in 1941, he told Mr. Imhoff. The Patrick Henry was the first of 2,710 Liberty ships produced in the U.S. during the war.

Forty-seven years later, in 1988, Mr. Groh was the co-master on a tug that pulled the rusting John W. Brown, one of only two Liberty ships still afloat, from Virginia to its new home in Baltimore. In 1991, the restored John W. Brown opened as a floating museum ship berthed in Canton.

"Captain Groh was one of the many Renaissance men and women on the old rust bucket Brown when she needed people of experience and wisdom for its restoration," said Mr. Imhoff, a former editor at The Baltimore Sun. "He scrounged for usable gear to replace parts. He was a talent scout. …He offered advice in difficult spots. He helped young shipmates. He was a human compass."

He used the connections he had made at the port to locate parts needed for the restoration, Mr. Schneider recalled, and proved adept at coaxing them away from their sometimes-reluctant owners. "He certainly knew his way around the maritime community," Mr. Schneider recalled. "I gather those people must have had a lot of respect for him, or he would not have been as effective as he was."

Mr. Groh and his wife of 30 years, the former Doris Baker, established two perpetual scholarships at the Johns Hopkins University. One, in the name of Mrs. Groh's brother, journalist Russell Baker, is earmarked for undergraduate support in writing seminars. The second, in Mr. Groh's name, benefits students in the natural sciences.

Mr. Groh is survived by his wife, who lives in Catonsville. The couple had no children.

At Mr. Groh's request, there will be no funeral or memorial service. His ashes will be strewn at sea when the John W. Brown makes its next voyage on the Atlantic.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com