The Rev. Donald Edward Gerlach, whose nondenominational ministry saw to the spiritual and material needs of visiting mariners and other waterfront workers, died April 11 of cancer at Meridian Franklin Woods nursing center in Rosedale. He was 64.
Working out of a blue 1985 Ford van with a "smiley" face painted on the side, the Northeast Baltimore resident was a familiar figure around the city's waterfront. The van was filled with Bibles, tapes and inspirational Christian literature in 65 languages.
On call seven days a week, Mr. Gerlach never took a vacation. He dressed in khaki pants and an open-collar shirt without a clerical collar. He was comfortable scurrying up the sides of ships on Jacob's ladders to see whether crew members or passengers needed assistance while their vessel was docked in Baltimore.
"He covered 27 miles of waterfront and ministered to all who worked in the port," said his wife of 43 years, the former Katherine Monroe, who assisted her husband by answering the phone, duplicating tapes and handling the voluminous correspondence associated with his work.
"He counseled not only seafarers but gate guards, Maryland Port Authority police, crane operators, longshoremen, fire boat station crews and members of the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.
"He'd bring them health kits, drive them in his van to the bank, the federal building or the grocery store," she said.
Since 1981, Mr. Gerlach had been director of the Baltimore Baptist Port Ministry of the Baltimore Baptist Association, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Earlier, he and his wife were volunteers with the Mission Service Corps.
"He truly cared about people and it didn't make any difference to him what church you went to or if you didn't," said M. Jane Dye, administrative assistant of the Baltimore Baptist Association. "He was simply an outgoing guy who wanted to help people."
She described his van as a "rolling church."
"He had a box of Bibles he gave away to folks he met even while he was sick in the hospital. He talked about Jesus until he could talk no more," Ms. Dye said.
"His reputation and work was certainly known around the port FTC and he'll be missed," said Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association.
"He kept detailed records and figured he'd visited some 8,000 ships in his career," Mrs. Gerlach said. She said her husband had been given more than 100 foreign flags by grateful visiting sea captains and mariners.
Born and raised in Northeast Baltimore, he was a 1951 graduate of Polytechnic Institute and studied at the Johns Hopkins University. After serving in the Navy during the Korean conflict aboard the radar vessel Eugene A. Green, he was discharged in 1955 with the rank of machinist mate third class.
He worked for many years as a mechanical engineer and draftsman for the Glenn L. Martin Co. and later for Pfizer Chemical Co.
Mrs. Gerlach believed the 1970 death of their son Dale E. Gerlach, who was killed by a speeding motorist, turned her husband's life toward the ministry.
"That's where God put him and that's where he found his life'work," she said.
Services are planned for 11 a.m. Monday at the White Marsh Baptist Church, 4216 Silver Spring Road in White Marsh, where Mr. Gerlach was ordained in 1991.
In addition to his wife, survivors include four sons, Paul W. Gerlach, Donald C. Gerlach, Timothy G. Gerlach and Daniel T. Gerlach, all of Baltimore; a daughter, Carol Ann Brockmeyer of Baltimore; a brother, John Robert Gerlach of Plantation, Fla.; and two grandchildren.
The family suggested memorial donations to a favorite charity.