J. Bernard Rafferty, a retired tugboat company executive, raconteur and practical jokester who invented a ship that was perpetually bound for Baltimore but never arrived, died Wednesday of renal failure at the Charlestown Nursing Center in Arbutus. He was 89.
Mr. Rafferty, a well-known waterfront character called "Bern" or "Raff" by friends, joined the old Baker-Whiteley Coal Co. in 1940 as vice president and dispatcher.
In 1973, he was named president of the company, which later changed its name to Baker-Whiteley Towing Co. He retired in 1976.
"Bern loved to create laughs around the waterfront and to that purpose created the Colonial Dame, a fictitious ship which loaded cargo for Baltimore but, curiously, never appeared in Baltimore," said his son, the Rev. Brian M. Rafferty, pastor of Our Lady of the Chesapeake Roman Catholic Church in Pasadena.
"And believe me, most of the old salts knew it was Bernie's doing," he said, laughing.
Another elaborate hoax he hatched to torture an acquaintance at the Steamship Trade Association was the Russian ice burner.
"He calls the guy up and tells him he better rush this news right to the newspapers, because this ship is very unique," Father Rafferty said. "It burns ice, which melts and then condenses into steam, which powers its engines -- and the guy buys it hook, line and sinker. . . . The Russian ice burner, like the Colonial Dame, never appeared in the port."
Former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who has wide knowledge of maritime affairs, called Mr. Rafferty "a real tale-spinner who had a tremendous sense of humor. When he would come off with these stories, you never knew if he was serious or pulling your leg."
"He was a tremendous human being who contributed a great deal in the early days when we were rethinking how the port should operate," she said.
Advancing years did not diminish Mr. Rafferty's capacity for pranks.
"He had an ah-oooga horn, which he had installed on every new Pontiac he purchased, and he loved pulling up behind an elderly couple and blowing it," Father Rafferty said.
George L. Stern, 95, retired general freight agent of the defunct Old Bay Line and a friend for 69 years, said: "He had more wit than any other man I ever knew, and I thought more of him than my own brother. Everyone liked him on the waterfront. He certainly knew how to make and keep friends."
Born in Southwest Baltimore near Hollins and Poppleton streets, Mr. Rafferty was the son of Irish immigrants.
He was a 1924 graduate of City College. He worked for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, several steamship companies and the Terminal Warehouse Co. while attending the University of Baltimore, where he earned his law degree in 1938. He passed the bar but never practiced law.
Mr. Rafferty developed an interest in walking as a young man and for several years would walk to Washington after attending an early Mass in Baltimore and return aboard the old W. B. & A. Railroad.
In 1936, Mr. Rafferty married Marie F. Hurley. She died in 1992.
He enjoyed traveling with his wife and son aboard luxury liners or vessels as utilitarian as the Cape May-Lewes ferry.
During a North Atlantic storm, Mr. and Mrs. Rafferty found themselves in a deserted dining saloon as furniture and food crashed to the floor. When his wife observed that the situation might be more than a little dangerous, he replied, "Naaaah, anyone can cross the ocean, but this is an adventure."
He spent a lifetime compiling a dictionary of words that caught his attention and was an avid reader of Dickens, J. B. Priestley and Robert Benchley.
He had been a communicant of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and at his death was a member of Our Lady of the Chesapeake Roman Catholic Church, 8325 Ventnor Road, Pasadena, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 8 p.m. tomorrow.
He is survived by his son.