Joseph Tydings, true blue former Harford U.S. senator, dies at 90

Baltimore Sun Media Group

Joseph Davies Tydings, the last Harford County resident to serve in the United States Senate, a confidante of John and Robert Kennedy and a lifelong independent voice for progressive Democrats, died Monday from cancer in Washington, D.C. He was 90.

Sen. Tydings’ career in the state as a federal prosecutor and politician was marked by a willingness to take on members of his own Democratic party, often to their annoyance.

“His progressive battles cost him his Senate seat in 1970, but his display of political courage was an inspiration to me and many others,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen. “In these difficult times, he serves as a powerful example of the best in public service.”

“Joe re-wrote the book on the use of the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a corruption hunter,” said former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. “His use of a grand jury — and the tips it received — changed Maryland’s political picture. Personally, he was a loving man who was affectionate to his colleagues.”

Gov. Larry Hogan praised Sen. Tydings’ record of prosecutions against public corruption, and ordered flags to fly at half-staff on the day of his interment.

“Sen. Tydings and his family have made a lasting mark on Maryland,” the governor said.

“He was a fine progressive public servant,” said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes. “I was glad to call him a friend. He was a very friendly man who enjoyed being around people.”

“Joe was a true independent,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin. “In every office he held he respected the rights of the people rather than the political environment he worked within.”

“He helped to change politics in Maryland… and distinguished himself as a public servant from the very beginning,” former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said. “He was very much committed to public service and he helped open that to a whole new generation as a very strong advocate of progressive positions.”

Son of a senator

Born in Asheville, N.C., on May 4, 1928, to Eleanor Davies and Tom Cheesborough, he and his sister, Eleanor, were later adopted by U.S. Sen. Millard Tydings after his mother divorced their biological father. Millard Tydings, who also served in the House of Representatives and had a distinguished military career in World War I, is the only other Harford County resident to serve in the U.S. Senate. The Interstate 95 bridge over the Susquehanna River and Tydings Park in Havre de Grace are named in honor of Millard Tydings.

“I think it’s something to be proud of, that they hailed from Harford County,” said Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society and a 20-year friend of the younger Tydings.

Joseph Tydings was also the maternal grandson of Joseph M. Davies, a corporate lawyer and Democrat who was posted in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an ambassador to Moscow.

He grew up on Oakington Farm in Havre de Grace; the house on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay now belongs to Ashley Addiction Treatment. Harford County acquired more than 300 acres of the farm from the Tydings family in the 1990s for use as parkland.

The future senator was raised amid privilege — his grandfather married Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune, and he made childhood visits to her opulent homes in New York City and elsewhere. But he remained frugal throughout his life and didn’t consider himself an elite.

“He was a man of the people despite how he grew up,” said his daughter, Mary Tydings, of Easton.

He attended public school in Aberdeen before entering McDonogh School in Baltimore County. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and attained the rank of corporal. He served with the 6th Cavalry Group of the Third Army, one of the Army’s last horse platoons, during the postwar occupation of Germany.

A lifelong horse lover, he later would introduce the Horse Protection Act into the Senate, meant to combat the abusive practice of “soring” horses to affect their gait. He was given an award by the U.S. Humane Society for his work.

After completing his military service, Sen. Tydings entered the University of Maryland, College Park. He played lacrosse and football and received his undergraduate degree in 1950. In 1953, he graduated from the University of Maryland Law School.

In the 1950s he served as president of the Maryland Young Democrats and during his tenure he once confronted an Ocean City hotel owner who refused to allow black attendees to stay there.

Corruption fighter

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named him U.S. Attorney for Maryland. As the state’s federal prosecutor, he brought corruption-related cases against politicians, including Congressman Thomas Johnson and House Speaker A. Gordon Boone, who both served time in prison. Sen. Tydings brought so many cases against Democratic politicians that, according to his autobiography, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy once called him, exclaiming: "My God, Joe, can't you ever find a Republican to indict?"

At the urging of President Kennedy, with whom he developed a close relationship in the 1960 presidential campaign, Sen. Tydings launched a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1963. The president was assassinated the same day that Sen. Tydings held a downtown Baltimore luncheon with colleagues to prepare for his run.

“We were having a lunch at the Marty Welsh restaurant when we got the word,” recalled J. Hardin Marion, his former campaign manager and later his Senate chief of staff.

He defeated Louis Goldstein — later state comptroller — in the 1964 Democratic primary and went on to beat Republican J. Glenn Beall Sr. in the general election. Elected at age 36, he had run with a pledge to clean up “old guard” politicians.

“It was a challenging relationship between Joe and President Lyndon B. Johnson,” Marion said. “He supported a lot of LBJ’s and the Democratic Party’s programs and initially supported Vietnam. But he split and became an anti-Vietnam senator.”

Championed liberal causes

During his six years in the Senate, 1965-1971, he championed liberal causes, including gun control, civil rights and opposing the war in Vietnam. Although he was a “very junior senator, Joe played a significant role making sure that legislation like the Voting Rights Act got passed,” Mr. Marion said.

According to a biography provided by his family, he became an enemy of President Richard Nixon after helping defeat two of the president’s Supreme Court nominees, Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell. His advocacy for gun control drew the wrath of the National Rifle Association. He lost a 1970 re-election bid to then-Congressman John Glenn Beall Jr., the son of the man he had defeated six years earlier.

“The NRA did him in, and his loss from active politics was really a loss for the State of Maryland,” said former State Sen. Julian L. Lapides. “Joe was… a liberal who was maybe a little ahead of his time.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden wrote the forward to “My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain,” and noted that while he and Sen. Tydings came from different backgrounds, “our politics ended up in the same place. When I think back to my early years in the Senate, I was building on groundwork that Joe had helped lay — from opposing senseless carnage of the war in Vietnam to expanding civil rights protections for all Americans.”

After losing re-election, Sen. Tydings remained active in political circles and lobbied for laws to protect the Chesapeake Bay. A favorite hobby was log canoeing on the bay, which he enjoyed until his later years.

He also served as a member and chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland from 1974 to 1984, and later served as a regent of the University of Maryland system from 2000 to 2005.

He was an architect of spinning off the former University of Maryland Hospital into the nonprofit University of Maryland Medical System.

‘Justice and fairness’

At an age when his peers were considering retirement, Sen. Tydings worked as an attorney with Washington law firm Blank Rome LLP. Jim Kelly, chairman of Blank Rome’s Washington office, said Sen. Tydings chose to continue to work toward causes he deemed important.

“It sounds a little trite, but he really was committed to basic notions of justice and fairness,” Mr. Kelly said. “He was not afraid to wear that on his sleeve, and he was not afraid to stand up and be counted.”

Former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler recalled frequent breakfast meetings when Sen. Tydings would order grits, crispy bacon, eggs and tomato juice, and called his friend “a man of deep principal and courage.”

“He went after corruption at the highest levels — in his own party,” Mr. Gansler said. “And in civil rights, women’s issues and minority issues, he was talking about them in the 1960s and we’re still talking about them today. He was an establishment figure who took on the establishment when he thought it was appropriate to do so.

“He lived a very long and spirited life, and he made a great deal of difference in other peoples’ lives,” he said.

Skowronski, of the Historical Society of Harford County, said she first learned about him while in elementary school in the late 1960s, when she saw a magazine photo essay about his efforts to improve the welfare of “gaited,” or walking horses, by working with his then-Republican colleague, Sen. Howard Baker, of Tennessee, to pass the Horse Protection Act to ban “soring,” a practice of inflicting pain on a horse’s legs to create the desired style of gait.

The act was enacted and signed into law in 1970, but soring continued for decades after that in part of the Tennessee walking horse industry, so Senator Tydings championed new U.S Department of Agriculture regulations meant to strengthen his original legislation and crack down on soring, according to a January 2017 news release from the The Humane Society of the United States.

The organization named Senator Tydings its 2016 Humane Horseman of the Year.

“It’s a pretty horrible thing, and he recognized that early on,” Skowronski said Tuesday, becoming emotional as she talked about Sen. Tydings.

The historical society director became emotional as she described a man she also knew over 20 years of her adult life.

She said she last spoke with Senator Tydings on July 4, when she was driving past his Monkton home and went in for a short visit. Senator Tydings was entertaining his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. Senator Tydings introduced her to his grandchildren, in whom he expressed great pride, Skowronski recalled.

She described Senator Tydings as “gregarious” and a “great storyteller,” who “made people feel at ease.” She said he also “took things seriously and was focused” when matters required him to be serious.

‘Cared about his state’

“He cared about his state, and he cared about his country and he cared about Harford County, which was his childhood home,” she said.

Skowronski said she originally knew Senator Tydings through the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club in Monkton, where he maintained a cottage, known as Bachelor’s Quarters, and also through politics, as he would contact her if he was campaigning for a Democratic candidate in Harford County such as Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh or U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

She spoke with him over the phone in the spring following the publication of his autobiography, “My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain” in April. She complemented him on the book and asked about sending him some copies for him to sign.

Skowronski said Senator Tydings made it “very clear” in his book that he was not a fan of Republican President Donald Trump.

“The one good thing about what is going on today in the country was that he felt it was going to rally young people, that young people had become active,” she said.

Skowronski said Senator Tydings told her, “don’t worry, it’s going to be OK.”

In a statement Tuesday, Albert J.A. Young, a Bel Air lawyer and president emeritus of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club, wrote: “Although he spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., Joe always considered himself a Harford Countian and rented ‘Bachelors Quarters’ from the Club forever. Bachelor’s Quarters was like a museum of American politics. There were pictures and memorabilia from political luminaries over many decades. He had a walking stick that Woodrow Wilson gave his grandfather, Ambassador Joe Davies, for his help in getting Wilson elected.”

“But amidst that impressive collection of history, in a place of great prominence on top of the fire place was the letter from EHHC awarding Joe EHHC colors,” Young wrote. “I think he showed me that letter every time I visited Bachelors Quarters.

“Joe was always very supportive of EHHC and of me personally when I served as EHHC president,” Young wrote. “He participated in club events as his schedule allowed and was a beloved member of the EHHC family. Farewell old EHHC friend. We will miss you. God’s speed.”

Sen. Tydings got his start in politics by running for the Maryland House of Delegates in 1954 and winning election with three other men who like him were first time candidates and all in their 20s: Thomas J. Hatem, a lawyer like Tydings; W. Dale Hess, a farmer; and Charles Moore, a local newspaper publisher. The local press dubbed them the “Whiz Kids,” most likely homage to the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team of 1950 made up of mostly twentysomething players, according to interviews with Mr. Hess, Mr. Hatem and Mr. Tydings during their lifetimes.

Sen. Tydings was the last surviving member of the group whose collective election shook up the political establishment in Harford County — despite his father’s service as a U.S. senator, the younger Tydings was considered an outsider among leaders of the county’s dominant Democratic Party of those times – and the group went to Annapolis ready to conquer the state, Mr. Hess recalled in an interview on the 50th anniversary of their election in 2004.

Three of the four – Mr. Tydings, Mr. Hess and Mr. Moore – worked together for eight years in the State House (Mr. Hatem ran unsuccessfully for State Senate in 1958) and were instrumental in passing a number of bills that were key to Harford County’s future, including funding for what became Interstate 95, Mr. Hess recalled.

More importantly, Mr. Hess said, they opened the door for many younger people to get involved in politics in the county – which had for decades been controlled by a kind of old guard Democratic machine – and successfully challenge the establishment by getting elected to county offices and legislative seats.

In the state legislature, Mr. Tydings fought for greater oversight of savings and loan companies after the industry’s major scandal.

"I was appalled no one was doing anything about it," he wrote in his autobiography, “My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain,” co-written with former Baltimore Sun reporter John W. Frece. The reason, he argued, was that many politicians in the state were profiting from these schemes.

Early Kennedy supporter

Sen. Tydings’ relationship with the future president Kennedy and his younger brother who became attorney general was cemented during the 1960 presidential primary campaign, when Sen. Tydings helped the Kennedy campaign organize for the Maryland primary. The two had met a few years earlier when Kennedy, then a U.S. senator, spoke at the Maryland Young Democrats annual Jackson Day dinner. Sen. Tydings was the organization’s president.

“Needless to say I was impressed,” Sen. Tydings said in a 2010 interview with The Aegis.

After Kennedy won an upset victory in the West Virginia primary in early May 1960, Tydings put together a two-day whirlwind tour for the candidate across Maryland, whose primary was a week later, that included stops in Havre de Grace, Elkton, Chestertown, Cambridge, Salisbury, Southern Maryland, Annapolis and Hagerstown, while Robert Kennedy made stops in Bel Air and Aberdeen.

The future president stayed overnight at the Tydings home at Oakington, where he would later visit on a few occasions as president. The next morning, Kennedy stood in front of City Hall in Havre de Grace and received a key to the city from then-Mayor Walter McLlhinney, as a beaming Tydings and other local dignitaries looked on.

“I wanted to carry Harford County badly,” Sen. Tydings recalled. (Kennedy would win Harford County in the primary, but lose the county to Richard Nixon in the general election.)

In his later years, Sen. Tydings would often talk proudly of the few visits the president made to his home overlooking the bay, which served as a convenient, private place to escape from Washington and the glare of media attention.

Sen. Tydings married Virginia Reynolds Campbell, of Lewes, Del., in 1955. They had four children and divorced in 1974. The following year, he married Terry Lynn Huntingdon, of Mount Shasta, Calif., with whom he had a fifth child. That marriage and two subsequent marriages ended in divorce.

Sen. Tydings kept a home In Harford County near Ladew Topiary Gardens. He called his residence “Bachelor’s Quarters” and hosted an annual party at the My Lady’s Manor races.

One of Sen. Tydings’ political slogans was “Joe Tydings doesn’t duck the tough ones,” recalled his daughter. It remained an apt phrase until the end of his life. Sick with cancer, he nevertheless attended his oldest grandchild’s wedding on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in September.

Devoted to the state until the end, he took his last breath while cloaked in a blanket bearing the name of his alma mater, said his daughter.

A memorial service and reception will be held beginning at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 10 at the University of Maryland Memorial Chapel in College Park.

In addition to Ms. Tydings, he is survived by other children Millard Tydings, of Skillman, N.J., Emlen Tydings Gaudino, of Palm Beach in Australia, Eleanor Tydings Gollob, of McLean, Va., and Alexandra Tydings Luzzatto, of Washington; a sister, Eleanor Tydings Russell, of Monkton; and nine grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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