Owens insider loses place in background

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There isn't much Billy Chaney wouldn't do for his childhood pal, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. But the lanky, drawling, chain-smoking South County gentleman farmer drew the line when she asked him to say a word for her at a meeting at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Edgewater.

Chaney, one of Owens' most trusted advisers, offered to sit in the audience, listen carefully and take copious notes at the event in the spring of 1999, when he was briefly on the county payroll.

But get up and address the group, if only to pass along greetings from Owens? No way, no how.

"He just wouldn't do it," she recalled. "He's very shy."

William Franklin Chaney is so shy that he avoids even good press - such as the fact that he put up $1,000 to help find vandals who defaced a statue of the late Aris T. Allen, a prominent black Annapolis physician and legislator. Chaney didn't want to be identified, but word leaked out.

So Chaney, 54, found it doubly painful to be thrust into the spotlight in recent newspaper articles about the county's transfer of 16 acres to the Old South Country Club, which he helped develop. County officials say the move last year corrected a 9-year-old drafting error that inadvertently gave the county the floodplain, but some members of the County Council suggested favoritism because of Chaney's ties to Owens.

"If my name is never again in the paper, I certainly would be happy," Chaney said last week in an interview he granted reluctantly and only on the condition that he not be photographed. "I'm a private person. I like to be in the background."

He has made himself at home in the background since Owens was elected in 1998. When the County Council meets, odds are that Chaney is listening with Owens in her office. When an important bill is pending, council members often get a visit from Chaney, which they know is the same as if Owens stopped by.

Chaney said he has no personal stake in the affairs of the county - other than perhaps his desire to see more farmland preserved. And he and Owens agree that she considers his advice, then often does the opposite. But she said she values his input, especially on money matters.

"I've always known I could trust that Billy would tell me what he thought," she said. "He would never intentionally mislead me. We're like brother and sister."

Chaney may be shy, but he's not timid.

A millionaire who traces his roots to the Maryland Calverts and Gen. Robert E. Lee, he is such a Civil War devotee that he erected a statue of a Confederate soldier in the town of Lothian last year. He's planning a bigger monument to Lee and a museum on a 100-acre farm he bought near the Antietam battlefield in Washington County.

A traditionalist who seems plucked from a bygone era, he kicks men who swear in front of women, as Owens spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter found out after mildly cursing one night at a restaurant.

And despite his unflinching allegiance to Owens, Anne Arundel's first female county executive, he left the Episcopal Church a couple of years ago to start his own church, partly because he objected to the ordination of women.

Those who know Chaney see a common thread in just about everything he does.

"It's all a sense of public duty," said Edward O. Wayson Jr., an Annapolis lawyer and member of another prominent South County clan. "It shows in his interest in historical events and how he pictures what South County should be and how he commits himself to help the county executive."

Like many ancestors before him, Chaney lives at Lothian, the brick Georgian family homestead built in 1801 that gave its name to the surrounding area. The grounds cover 120 acres, most leased to area farmers.

His home's walls fairly throb with history. Images of Lee peer down on almost every room, and there are framed letters of Lee and George Washington.

Though Chaney is hardly trigger-happy - "I couldn't shoot a deer if it was attacking me, probably," he said - he displays a small armory of Civil War weapons used by both sides.

Chaney was raised on another family property nearby. He remembers the days when one could walk two miles down the road past tobacco fields and not see a car. For fun, kids swung from vines into ponds in summer and went sledding in winter.

Another popular destination was the Chaney house on Greenock Road, with its swimming pool out back. It was there that Chaney and Owens got to know each other. They became good friends, even if she didn't share his obsession with baseball cards, and he didn't think much of dancing at the Deale Teen Club on Friday nights.

Chaney married his high school sweetheart, Patrice, at 18 and briefly attended the University of Maryland. Then he went to work for Chaney Enterprises, the concrete business begun by his father, Eugene.

Ten years later, his father having died, Chaney got out of the family business by selling out to his brothers. Ever since, the father of three has made money investing his inheritance. That has allowed him to pursue his fascination with history, particularly the Civil War. In 1996, he published a book he wrote about Lee called "Duty Most Sublime."

"I think you owe it to remember people who did heroic things for what they believed in, whether it was Confederate or Union," he said.

Not that he defends slavery, which he calls "a terrible thing." But in his view, the institution was not a key factor in the Civil War. "Slavery was on the way out, certainly in Maryland and Virginia," he said. "Lee was against slavery. It was more about states' rights."

In June 1999, when he unveiled a bronze statue of Confederate soldier Benjamin Welch Owens - an ancestor of Janet Owens who single-handedly staved off Union troops after his comrades had fallen - some blacks expressed uneasiness with the monument on rural Route 408.

But Chaney got support from Leonard Blackshear, a black businessman who has led a campaign to erect a statue of Kunta Kinte, the ancestor who inspired Alex Haley's book "Roots."

"I saw the Welch Owens memorial as a testament to the heroic heritage that he brings to that family," Blackshear said. "He was fighting on the wrong side, in my opinion, but that in no way takes away from his valor."

Chaney's latest plan is to erect an 11-foot statue of Lee on his property near Antietam, a move the National Park Service says it cannot stop. To ease the service's concerns about its scale, Chaney has agreed to build a smaller statue base, about 12 feet tall instead of 20 feet tall. He expects to open the museum next year in a restored farmhouse.

Owens does not object to Chaney's Civil War pursuits, but she disagrees with his opposition to female ministers.

"I have a problem with his problem," she said with a laugh. "Some things are just intractable," she said, so they don't discuss them.

Chaney, whose reddish hair matches his beard and mustache, makes no apology for his stance. "I'm not an expert on the Bible, but Jesus had 12 apostles, and they were all men," he said. "That's the way it was meant to be."

More than the role of women, what bothered Chaney were what he considered the "liberal" ways of the church. For instance, he did not like having to hug everyone around him during the portion of services called "peace." "I said, 'Oh God, I'm just not into that.' I'm not a very outgoing person."

So he bought an old clapboard church across the road from a cornfield, fixed it up, hired a minis-ter and christened it Mount Calvary Southern Episcopal Church.

There's no undue hugging in its seven rows of pews. A 1928 prayer book is used, with the "thee" and "thou" references Chaney likes. About 25 people attend services most Sundays.

To Chaney, his support for Owens is not contradictory. He said religion and politics are different realms. "Even conservatives have accepted women in politics," he said, mentioning Republican Elizabeth Dole's presidential bid.

Even so, he urged Owens not to run for county executive in 1998, echoing a widespread belief that she was too little-known. He supported her nonetheless and served as campaign treasurer. After she upset incumbent Republican John G. Gary, Chaney was co-chairman of her transition team and spent four months on the payroll earning $15 an hour.

Chaney praised the job Owens has done. He pointed to her support of public education and agricultural preservation, issues Owens said Chaney reminds her about all the time.

But he doesn't think her job is a particularly pleasant one. Maybe that's because he would probably sooner fight for the Union army than subject himself to such a public role.

"She's not having fun," he said. "I'm sure she finds it interesting, but fun is not the word. I don't think she realized how tough it would be."

Nor did he imagine his actions could cause political problems for her. He said he hopes that's not the case with the country club land issue and that he will fade further into the background if it would help his old friend.

"If I ever find out I'm hurting her, I'll stop being her treasurer," he said. "She wouldn't even have to ask me."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°