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Harford's 'Mr. Hess' left a larger-than-life imprint on his home county [Editorial]

W. Dale Hess is shown in 1984 at one of his development projects. "Location, location, location," was one of his mantras for being successful in the real estate business.
W. Dale Hess is shown in 1984 at one of his development projects. "Location, location, location," was one of his mantras for being successful in the real estate business.(Baltimore Sun Archive / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County politician and businessman W. Dale Hess disproved the F. Scott Fitzgerald tome that there are no second acts in American lives and in doing so made his native county a better place.

Mr. Hess, a one-time owner of hotels, apartment complexes, shopping centers, an insurance and bonding company, a horse racing track and a piece of the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore County, to name a few of his myriad of investments and developments, died Oct. 22 at his home in Fallston, where he had lived for more than 60 of his 87 years. The home, into which he and his wife, Marie, settled after courting while students at Bel Air High School and marrying, was built on the farm where Mr. Hess grew up milking cows.

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Our obituary published in Wednesday's edition, which was written by Jacques Kelly of The Sun and contributed to by Aegis staff members, tells a lot about the high and low points of Mr. Hess' life. The highs were many, both in the political and business spheres in which he operated. The lowest of the lows was his 1977 conviction on political corruption charges along with Gov. Marvin Mandel and four of Mr. Hess' business associates.

W. Dale Hess, a Harford County businessman who rose to majority floor leader in the Maryland House of Delegates and was later convicted — then cleared — on charges in a federal political probe during the Gov. Marvin Mandel administration, died of cancer complications Saturday at his Fallston home. He was 86.

Although the conviction was overturned a decade later and Mr. Hess left this life with a clean record in the eyes of the federal criminal justice system, the scandal is unfortunately not likely to be forgotten. It cost him three years of his freedom, hundreds of thousands of dollars – if not millions in legal and other expenses related to his indictments and ultimately successful appeal. Lesser men would have been broken forever. W. Dale Hess was not, and how he bounced back is illustrative both of his character and his determination not to give up, regardless of the forces that seemed to be aligned against him. Was he a saint? He would be the first to admit he was not. Was he a wheeler and dealer? Absolutely, and for sure proud of it, but an honest one and – don't you forget it!

If he took a liking to you – and there weren't many he didn't like, Mr. Hess was a friend you were pleased to have. If he said something, he meant it. He was proud that people knew his word was his bond. He was a devoted family man.

"He was very kind to me," Nancy Jacobs, the retired state senator and delegate from Abingdon, said. "He took me under his wing and helped me in so many ways."

"He was a great businessman, and he helped teach those of us who were new to politics the importance of voting pro business, the importance of supporting your local businesses and that tourism is economic development," Jacobs said.

After 46 years in the hospitality business, Harford County's largest hotel owner and operator is closing up shop. Hess Hotels Group is wrapping up the process of selling its five hotels to new owners after the company decided it could no longer keep up with the expectations of the modern hotel industry, owner Pam Lytle-Hess said in an interview earlier this week.

Indeed, you could learn plenty of lessons about business, politics and life in general from Mr. Hess, just by spending and hour or two with him. He was generous of his time – and with his opinions – but he did not tolerate fools, or people he thought had been less than forthright with him.

There are numerous stories about Mr. Hess that could probably fill a volume or two if anyone has written them all down. He may have had the fortune, or misfortune, that his last name only had four letters, making it almost impossible to misspell and very friendly for headline writers in the newspaper age. He supposedly said he didn't care what they wrote, as long they spelled his name right. We do know that no matter how much bad press he received – and there was plenty of it to go around in the 1960s and 1970s – he never hid out, never stopped talking.

In looking through our files about Mr. Hess this week, we came upon a letter he wrote to the old Board of County Commissioners back in 1965, during the final of his four year terms in the House of Delegates. It says a lot about him and how he viewed life in his home county.

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Former Harford County elected officials and business leaders remember the late Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, who died Sunday at the age of 95, as a leader who supported a number of local projects that still benefit Harford County today.

The county, he wrote, needed better roads for all kind of reasons, but it wasn't getting them because the elected officials at the county level and those at the state level weren't working together. One place to start, he wrote, was to start paving the miles and miles of unimproved county roads that "in many cases they still remind you of the 'horse and buggy days.'"

"I hope," he wrote in conclusion, "through the cooperation of the Harford County Commissioners and Delegation, that we will be able to launch a road building program in Harford County so that every citizen...in the next five years will be 'out of the mud,' will have school bus transportation by their homes and be riding on a hard surface county road."

A comment attributed to Mr. Hess from his legislative time in the 1950s and 1960s was that he worked 12 hours a day, eight for his constituents and four for himself. But many from that era and since say his work on behalf of constituents was a strength that many others in local politics have long come to emulate.

Even when his personal situation was at its worst, Mr. Hess' home telephone number was listed in the directory. He was that kind of guy – down home, and thoroughly genuine.

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