William Downes, founder of insurance firm, dies

William Downes, who helped found the prominent Baltimore insurance firm Riggs, Counselman, Michaels and Downes, died Aug. 7 of pneumonia at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The Towson resident was 95.

Mr. Downes also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, where he completed 50 missions and flew in China, Burma and India.

“He wanted to provide for his family, to give us everything he didn’t have growing up,” said his daughter, Elinor Henry of Riderwood. “I think his definition of success was to provide well for his family and to be at the top of his game, whether in sports or the business world.”

William Wallace Downes was born in Baltimore in 1922 to Worthington and Elinor Downes. His parents divorced and his mother worked as a secretary to support her children.

Mr. Downes grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1940. After he graduated he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force for eight months to receive flight training, then joined the U.S. Army Air Corps once the U.S. joined World War II.

During the war, Mr. Downes was stationed in India, where he flew supply planes over the Himalayan mountains to China. He was later discharged as a major and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with oak leaf clusters, and a medal from the Chinese government.

“He couldn’t afford to go to college, his family didn’t have the means, so going into the military for him was a wonderful alternative,” said his son, William Downes Jr., of Salt Lake City, Utah. The younger Mr. Downes described his father as a “courageous” man who was very energetic.

“He was a go-for-it guy,” Mr. Downes said. “Not much moss grew under his feet. He was always onto the next thing.”

After the war, Mr. Downes lived for less than a year in Amsterdam, where he flew for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. But he failed a routine eye exam when his depth perception was found lacking, which ended his flying career.

Back in Baltimore, Mr. Downes joined Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. as a salesman in Baltimore and as a resident manager in Harrisburg, Pa.

He returned to Baltimore in 1951 and worked for the Tongue-Brooks Insurance Co. He later helped form the insurance company Michaels, Fenwick and Downes, which merged with Riggs Warfield Roloson in 1969 to become Riggs, Counselman, Michaels and Downes. Mr. Downes was an executive vice president with the company and retired in 1978.

“He strove to be at the top of his game all the time,” Mrs. Henry said. “He wanted to build a good company that was successful.”

The company is now known as RCM&D and operates in Towson.

In the late 1940s, he married Margaret Hopkins, a homemaker. They met when his mother rented out rooms in her house and Mrs. Downes was one of the tenants.

The Downes lived in the Ruxton area, where Mr. Downes tended a large vegetable garden and the couple threw large Saturday night dinner parties where Mr. Downes enjoyed dancing.

“At night they would roll up the rugs and dance at these dinner parties,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Brown of Rehoboth, Del. “He was gregarious, outgoing, back in the day the life of the party.”

Mrs. Brown said her family kept pets including an English setter and a pigeon named Walter.

In his retirement, Mr. Downes volunteered for the Salvation Army, at one point serving as chair of its advisory board. He also volunteered at Union Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Downes was an avid tennis player, golfer and skiier. In his retirement, he hired a tutor to learn French and even lived with a family in France to immerse himself in the language.

Mr. Downes’ children said he sought to give his children experiences he missed out on and sought those experiences for himself in retirement.

“He offered his children opportunities that he did not have,” the younger Mr. Downes said. “He saw that we had a good education.”

Mr. Downes was also a sports fan who loved the Baltimore Colts and the Baltimore Orioles. As a young man, he once hopped on a train with a friend to go see a Colts game in Cleveland, Mrs. Henry said.

“They had a few drinks and decided that the engineer should also have a drink,” Mrs. Henry said. “They climbed on top of the train while it was moving and took a drink down to the engineer.”

The two made it to the train engineer unscathed. “They bought him a ticket to the game,” she said.

Mr. Downes’ wife died in 2015. He is survived by his three children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services will be private.

An earlier version misstated Mr. Downes’ title at insurance firm Riggs, Counselman, Michaels & Downes before he retired. The Sun regrets the error.

cwells@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cwellssun

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°