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Thomas Sherlock, who marshaled contentious merger of Maryland health insurers, dies

Thomas Henry Sherlock, a health insurance executive who advocated affordability and marshaled the contentious merger of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maryland, often with the levity of a Gilbert and Sullivan line, died Tuesday morning.

Mr. Sherlock died from complications of cancer and organ failure at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. He was 92 years old and had retired as an executive vice president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland.

"We cannot forget that the customer — the employer or individual subscriber who is paying his or her hard-earned dollars into this organization — comes first," he said in an interview with the company magazine upon retirement in 1985. "Stretching our customers' health care dollars and providing our customers with superior service is our mission in life."

As CEO of Blue Cross of Maryland Inc., he labored five years to orchestrate the merger. Blue Shield paid doctors bills; Blue Cross, hospital benefits. Their consolidation was achieved in 1984 and predicted to save consumers $90 million a year in premiums, but it took a toll.

"Not only were the hours insane, but it was viciously antagonistic," said his son, Douglas Sherlock. "He was all-consumed with work."

Mr. Sherlock pressed onward with belief that consolidation would help families afford health insurance. It was a mission rooted in his own impoverished boyhood.

"It was always Tom who said, 'Well, how is this going to serve the people?'" said Bernard Tresnowski, former president of Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. "I could see that coming out of him was his experiences as a youth and the difficult time he had."

Mr. Sherlock was born 1924 in Baltimore and his father, Thomas Poisal Sherlock, died three years later. According to family lore, Thomas Poisal Sherlock, a wire editor for Baltimore Sunpapers, went one rainy day in 1927 to cover the scene after a bomb exploded on the porch of former Baltimore Mayor William Broening. No one was hurt.

Thomas Poisal Sherlock, however, fell ill and spent a year in bed before he died.

The family took a small apartment where Mr. Sherlock slept on a pallet in the dining room. His mother, Madeleine Coral Eisenbrandt Sherlock, found work as a secretary.

Mr. Sherlock patched his shoes with cardboard and walked to school. Eventually, he received an orphan's scholarship to board at McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

"He viewed McDonogh as something that really changed the trajectory of his life," Douglas Sherlock said.

He graduated in 1942 from McDonogh, five months after Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew a B-24 bomber. Mr. Sherlock prepared for deployment to the Pacific when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He never saw combat.

"He was grateful for that and slightly embarrassed, too. He wished he had been able to do more," Douglas Sherlock said.

Mr. Sherlock was discharged in December 1945 as a second lieutenant, then he studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He graduated with a degree in advertising and public relations in 1948. He worked at a cork manufacturer in Lancaster, Pa., the Armstrong Cork Co.; also Fidelity and Deposit Co. of Maryland, a bond and insurance company.

In 1958, he joined Blue Cross of Maryland as director of public relations. His role would expand until he was named president and CEO in 1973.

Critics had taken aim at the insurer for its plush Towson headquarters, $16 million operating profit and its board with few consumer representatives. Mr. Sherlock steered Blue Cross toward a consumer-oriented approach. He campaigned to increase public representatives on the board and embarked on the merger that would consume nearly five years.

Amid tense negotiations, he maintained humor. Mr. Sherlock was known to recite Gilbert and Sullivan, and Shakespeare.

"He was a statesman," Tresnowski said. "His major concerns were to retain the benefits for the people of Maryland."

State regulators approved the merger in late 1984. "He felt like it was his crowning achievement," said Diane Sherlock, his wife of 64 years.

In retirement, they toured Paris, slept in a treehouse bed-and-breakfast in Africa and visited the pyramids of Egypt. Mr. Sherlock maintained an adventurous streak.

Once he whisked his son, Douglas, for an adventure to camp on some Chesapeake Bay island. It was summer and they didn't count on the mosquitoes and biting flies. Still, Douglas relishes the memory. And his father was the envy of the neighborhood for the paper mache Halloween masks he crafted. His green martian mask came adorned with a screen-like radio antennae.

Mr. Sherlock lived 42 years in Ruxton before moving with his wife to Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson.

"He was a fighter," Diane Sherlock said. "He was wheelchair-bound for five years; with that wheelchair, he was all over the place at Blakehurst."

Before he died, Mr. Sherlock quietly repaid his tuition to McDonogh School at today's costs.

A memorial service will be Tuesday 11 a.m. at Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson, 7601 York Road.

Mr. Sherlock is survived by his wife, Diane Paula Costen of Towson. They have three children: Douglas Sherlock, of Gwynedd Valley, Pa., and Scott Sherlock and Jenifer Tacey Gracie of Baltimore County, as well as eight grandchildren.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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