Thomas Dickerson Dawes, a retired civil engineer and former chairman of the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission who touched off a controversy in 1970 when he investigated several incidents of racial unrest in southeastern Baltimore County, died Nov. 5 of pancreatic cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care.
Mr. Dawes died three days shy of his 85th birthday.
Mr. Dawes was born in Baltimore and raised on a Falls Road farm that was purchased by his great-grandfather in 1859 and has remained in his family since that time. After graduating from Towson High School in 1942, he attempted to join the Marine Corps.
"The Marine Corps recruiter, after learning that his brother was headed for Guadalcanal and that he was sole support for his mother (his father had died in 1934) refused to admit him and told him to go to college," said his son, Thomas K. Dawes of Montclair, N.J.
He enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, and two years later, was drafted into the Army and sent to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where he was trained in demolition work.
Mr. Dawes, who did not go overseas during World War II, returned to Hopkins, where he earned a degree in 1948 in civil engineering. He worked for the Whiting-Turner Co. and as a project manager for the Rouse Co.
He retired in the late 1970s.
Mr. Dawes, who had moved to a home on Wilton Road in Wiltondale in 1955, was active in community and civic affairs.
"He was a lifelong progressive Democratic Party activist. The presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal policies made a deep and lasting impression on him," his son said.
"Growing up without a father on a small farm, he understood the difficulties faced by average working people trying to survive in an uncertain economy," he said.
He was active in the Wiltondale Improvement Association and spearheaded the effort to reconstruct the street lighting in the neighborhood.
He expanded his community activism in 1960 when he served as chairman of the Citizens Committee for Better Schools in Baltimore County, and four years later as chairman of the School Board Nominating Convention of Baltimore County.
In 1969, Mr. Dawes was appointed chairman of the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission by Dale Anderson, then county executive, and it wasn't long before the two men clashed.
In May 1970, Mr. Dawes charged in a report that there had been a racial incident against an African-American woman in Dundalk, and that blacks and whites in Turners Station had made complaints against the handling of cases in the Dundalk Magistrates Court.
After Mr. Dawes released a report stating that Mr. Anderson and county politicians had turned a deaf ear to his accusations, he went to the newspapers and television.
Mr. Anderson claimed in news accounts that he had not read nor approved Mr. Dawes' report, and struck back by attempting to get the Human Relations Commission under his direct jurisdiction.
"State and county rights leaders decried a move by Baltimore County politicians to put the Human Relations Commission's powers in the hands of Dale Anderson, county executive," reported The Evening Sun at the time. "The commission must be free of political influence."
Mr. Dawes urged then- Gov. Marvin Mandel to investigate "allegations of malfeasance," said The Evening Sun.
Mr. Anderson said that there was "unrest" not just in Turners Station or Dundalk, but in "almost every section of the county" during "these tumultuous times."
The county executive then leveled direct criticism at Mr. Dawes.
"Many of them are brought on by people like Mr. Dawes whose job is to prevent trouble and who goes around making it," Mr. Anderson told The Evening Sun.
Mr. Dawes repeated his charges when he said the underlying issue was the Anderson administration's "failure to recognize grievances and problems of racial minorities and the poor, unscrupulous real estate sales, gun sales, lack of low cost housing, handling of cases in lower courts, and the limited employment of blacks," reported The Evening Sun.
Mr. Dawes told the newspaper that the "Magistrates Court is so subject to political manipulation that there isn't any respect for it. It makes people contemptuous of law and order."
During the controversy, Mr. Dawes received several telephone and written messages threatening his well-being, his son said.
One threat featured a picture of a gravestone showing the names of " John F. Kennedy 1963, Robert F. Kennedy 1968 and Martin Luther King 1968," his son said.
"And right below those names in underlined red caps was: 'YOU ARE NEXT! THOMAS DAWES 1970,'" his son said.
"He told me that he was deeply honored to be placed in the company of such great Americans. However, he felt constrained, because of a prior commitment to live a long and healthy life, to respectfully decline the honor of this invitation," his son said.
Because he was a lame-duck leader of the commission, Mr. Dawes was succeeded by Frances Sherba the next year.
"Those were days of great racial stress," recalled Tom Toporovich, former secretary to the Baltimore County Council, who at the time was liaison between the county executive's office and the commission.
"Tom was a great gentleman and during his heading of the commission pursued its goals and objectives in a reasonable fashion," Mr. Toporovich said.
In 1981, Mr. Dawes moved back to his boyhood home near Lutherville, where he and his wife of 62 years, the former Katharine Kimberly, restored the old farm.
He was an avid reader of both American and political history and had a large library devoted to the subject. He also was an avid soccer and lacrosse fan.
Mr. Dawes remained politically active until the end of his life as a longtime member of the Central Baltimore County Democratic Club.
"He regretted his recent brief illness because it prevented him from involvement in the recent election campaigns," his son said.
Services will be held in the spring of 2011 at Mr. Dawes' farm.
In addition to his wife and son, survivors include two daughters, Sally Dawes of Baltimore and Bevan Robinson of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.