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Charles Erwin Brookes, CEO of Davison Chemical

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Charles Erwin Brookes, the retired chief of W.R. Grace's Davison Chemical division, died of a heart attack Nov. 1 at the Bay Medical Center in Panama City, Fla. The longtime Gibson Island resident was 86.

Known as Charlie, he was born in Orange, N.J. His son, Stephen Brookes of Washington, D.C., said his father came from a "family of very modest means." At one time, his parents addressed envelopes by hand for a business to make ends meet.

At age 12, Mr. Brookes won a scholarship to St. Mark's School in Southborough, Mass. After graduation, he served in the Army as an infantry radio operator in World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

"He was part of the ill-fated 106th Division. In December 1944, they were shipped to Belgium to fill a gap. It was viciously cold, and the snow was waist-deep. He had been in Europe three days when the battle began," said another son, John Lincoln Brookes, also of Washington. "He was one of the lucky ones who made it through."

Mr. Brookes earned an engineering degree at Yale University, where he graduated first in his class in the School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1949. He also won the Yale Engineering Award.

He worked for the Sun Oil Co. before joining W.R. Grace & Co. in 1952. He began as a salesman with the Dewey and Almy Chemical Division in Cambridge, Mass. He rose throughout the firm's management, and in 1967 he was promoted to chief executive officer of Davison Chemical, a W.R. Grace division in Curtis Bay. He moved to Baltimore and lived on Edgevale Road in Roland Park.

He oversaw construction of the W.R. Grace Building at the corner of Charles and Baltimore streets. It occupied the site of the old Hub department store.

He worked in organic chemicals, construction products and chemicals sold in Europe. He also supervised a $20 million plant expansion to make the catalytic materials used in pollution control devices in autos. A 1976 Baltimore Sun article described the catalytic operation at the plant as being "the largest of its type in the world," with a capacity of 13 million pounds of catalytic material a year.

In a few years, he befriended William Donald Schaefer, who named him chairman of the Baltimore Economic Development Commission during Mr. Schaefer's first term as mayor.

"They were both out-of-the-box thinkers," John Lincoln Brookes said.

In a 1974 Evening Sun article, Mr. Brookes said that Baltimore's business leaders were misguided in trying to attract major corporate headquarters and should instead concern themselves with increasing the jobs base.

"We have to be particularly concerned about keeping people here," he said. "There's more unemployment at the blue-collar level than at the white-collar level."

Commenting on the rebuilding of downtown Baltimore in the 1970s, Mr. Brookes said, "It looks terrific," but he also worried about overbuilding. "I do not know if we need any more."

He was later named senior vice president of Grace, where, from the company's headquarters in New York, he oversaw its chemical businesses in the U.S. and Europe. By then, he was a Gibson Island resident and served on local boards, including the old Union Trust Co. of Maryland. He commuted to Manhattan weekly on the train.

In 1974, he was named chairman of the Eagle Scout recognition program of the Boy Scouts.

As a young man, Mr. Brookes developed an interest in sailing. After retiring in 1987, he spent many years on his sailboat, sailing local waters as well as the Caribbean. He also sailed a 42-foot sailboat across the Atlantic with his wife and two friends. The trip took two weeks.

Family members said he was a talented photographer and filmmaker, a licensed airplane pilot who flew a stunt plane on his 80th birthday, and a traveler who visited places such as Burma and Antarctica.

A private memorial service will be held in December.

In addition to his sons, survivors include his wife of 60 years, the former Joan Barry; a daughter, Wendy Brookes Ross of Seneca, S.C; and eight grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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