Bradford Jacobs: We called him Dice


MY SISTER AND I called our father Dice because when he was the Baltimore Sun's London bureau chief many years ago he worked erratic night hours. The baby sitter, determined that we not forget our absent papa, regularly pointed to his belongings and identified them in her Irish brogue as "Da's tie" or "Da's shoes." "Da's" became "Dase" became "Dise." And then there was Dice.

He was a newspaperman from the crown of his lean 6-foot-2 frame to the tips of his polished leather lace-ups. For four decades, until he died last week at 76, he wrote about Maryland politicians. He reveled in their misdeeds, marveled at their machinations and ever hung at the journalistic fence like a hungry bettor at the track. His editorials were as instrumental to the triumph of Gov. Harry Hughes as they were in the collapse of Gov. Marvin Mandel. But if Bradford Jacobs could weave politics into poetry, he was a pale shadow next to Dice.

Dice was a man you wanted to be around. You might be tempted to take his measure from his appearance, the elegant cut of the suit, the brilliant streak of the suspender, the patrician cast of the impossibly long limbs and the sleek British convertible. But if you took a second look -- as he would always do to others -- you would see a man with a wit that crackled and a heart that embraced. He loved old tractors and new ideas and peanut butter and bacon sandwiches on rye. He read Ian Fleming and the encyclopedia. He always had time.

He did not go to church. He created his own religion instead. He called it "skyism" and its lone tenet was that God would rather you be outside under the sky than crowded inside a stuffy church. When the hospital chaplain wandered into Dice's hospital room last week, I (the only other member of the church, as far as we knew) informed her that my father was a skyist. She did not stay long.

If he loved the outdoors, his creaky John Deere, his petulant roses and the proud geese that landed in his backyard each spring, he loved words even more. His affair with language began at Gilman School, where he wrote poetry under the pseudonym Roland Belvedere, taken from the names of two nearby streets. Of the many jobs that he held at The Evening Sun, his favorite was the column he wrote for nearly a decade in which he chronicled not only the nation's political life but the passions of my sister and me for the Beatles and Barbie and Ken.

The story he claimed

While the Hughes upset brought him the widest acclaim, the Mandel saga was the story he claimed as his own. As Marvin Mandel clawed his way through Baltimore's back wards and ultimately into the governor's office, Dice covered his every move. And when Mandel was convicted in 1977, Dice moved into a drafty room off the garage and went to work on a book.

Engulfed by musty furniture and dirty garden equipment, he bent over his old electric typewriter for five years until it was done. He jokingly considered calling it "The Road to Mandel's Lay" in reference to the extramarital love affair that contributed to Mandel's collapse. In the end, he settled for "Thimbleriggers."

He loved to surprise. When several weeks ago I nervously informed my parents that I was three months pregnant (they did not need to be told that I was not married) he made the conventional paternal noises. Who, he inquired, might the father be? What, exactly, was my relationship with him? But by the next morning Dice was firmly on board. Was he, I asked anxiously the following morning, worried that my condition would scandalize conservative old Baltimore? He looked up from his newspaper. "Let's hope so," he exclaimed.

He was a man who drank of life like a parched desert explorer, but in recent years he had been unable to partake of it very deeply. Gripped by emphysema, he gasped for air. By early this year he could barely walk from one room to the next without stopping to breathe. It took him more than an hour each morning just to get dressed. Last month he stopped going to his beloved 14 West Hamilton Street Club for lunch, his last link to a once vibrant social life. He could no longer climb the stairs.

It was, for him, fast becoming a life not worth living. He railed against a future in which he could do no more than "sit on the porch and knit." And so he decided to take a risk. He would undergo an experimental new lung surgery. He worked hard to get in shape for it and walked the treadmill at Children's Hospital for four months. When he exceeded the 30 minutes required by his doctors, striding for a whopping 32 minutes, we drank champagne.

The doctors cracked Dice's breastbone at 10 a.m. on the first Thursday in April. He survived the operation. But two days later an undetected ulcer on his intestine burst and he never regained consciousness. As he lay in his hospital bed tethered to a galaxy of machines, his lung surgeon noted with some pride that Dice's lungs were about all of him that was working. Dice had won the battle but lost the war. That would have amused him, in a way. But he would have hated the cliche.

Sally H. Jacobs is a reporter for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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