Two spouses with two styles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a recent afternoon in Annapolis, in a classroom stocked with uncomfortable straight-back chairs and a giant wooden table, David L. Townsend -- professor by the standard definition, tutor in the language of St. John's College -- quietly moderated a wide-ranging discussion of two 1633 sonnets penned by the metaphysical poet John Donne.

The same day, his wife Kathleen, Maryland's lieutenant governor, stepped onto the campaign trail where she has sometimes stumbled on her message, to ramp up attacks on her Republican gubernatorial opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., declaring him "clearly out of step with Maryland's mainstream."

She has long been the one with the public persona, whether she sought it or not, attracting attention as much for her membership in the storied Kennedy clan as anything else.

He, though, is more at ease in the classroom where what you say is often far more valued than how you say it, a true intellectual who in a given semester may teach ancient Greek or non-Euclidean geometry or the French lyric poetry.

"He's the quiet strength behind the scenes," said Stephen Hayes, who has worked with David Townsend on an AIDS research project. "Nobody knows this guy. He's a very private person."

For his wife, though, Townsend will do anything -- and always has. So three days a week, the lanky, bespectacled academic pulls on his "Team Townsend" T-shirt, tacks on a button with her photo on it and heads out to campaign.

He gives well-thought-out and well-delivered speeches, hitting the issues important to the crowd of the hour and sharing some about his life as a native son of Maryland. He endures parades of politicians led by color guards, dogs on skateboards and blue soft drinks -- all on the way to shake as many hands as he can, imploring those he meets to "Please vote for my beloved wife."

"He's a professor, so he likes his quiet time. He likes to stay in and study his philosophy," says 18-year-old Kate, the third of their four daughters (ranging from ages 10 to 24), who is taking a semester off from Brown University to help campaign. "For him to put his face out there seems unusual to me, but he seems to be having fun."

He has never been an actual adviser to the campaign, the Townsends said, though they are always talking and bouncing ideas off one another. His primary contribution to his wife's political career has been holding down the home front while she worked 14-hour days. He made hot cereal for the girls, packed lunches, did the laundry, bought the groceries, cheered at soccer games, read The Hobbitt, played chess and "put up pigtails," as Kate put it -- all while holding down several interesting positions himself.

"The first role he plays is he's an incredibly supportive husband," the candidate said. "It would be very hard to run for office" without that.

When David Townsend married Kathleen Kennedy nearly 29 years ago, he said he never thought she would go into politics, despite her lineage as eldest daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and niece of the late President John F. Kennedy.

He thought she would be an artist. Her bridesmaids gave them a potter's wheel as a wedding gift.

"It seems odd now, but in the early '70s, this was not something women did and not something women in the Kennedy family did," he said.

They met at Harvard University, where David Townsend went after graduating from Dulaney High School in Timonium and Loyola College in Baltimore.

He was working toward his doctorate and tutoring undergraduate honors students in American literature. She was one of the 10 who were assigned to him.

She was smitten with him. He didn't notice.

"I was a rather naive 23-year-old and she was a very mature 20-year-old," Townsend recalled, smiling. "She would say things like, 'We should meet more often' and I would schedule more tutorials."

They fell in love during the summer of 1972 on a trip she organized for her classmates. Since they had been studying Mississippi Valley writings -- the works of Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, George Washington Cable -- she decided they should ride a handmade raft 500 miles down the big river.

They married in 1973, with hundreds packed into Trinity Church in Georgetown for the Kennedy extravaganza. Andy Williams sang "Ave Maria," and the whole party sang "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."

He seems unfazed now, after years as part of one of the nation's most-talked-about families. He, instead, prefers to talk about his own family.

Father an educator

His 89-year-old mother, Dolores Fahey, who was abandoned by her teen-age mother when she was a tot, grew up in orphanages on the Irish east side of Baltimore and remembers spending some nights sleeping in the streets.

His father, Ray Townsend, who died in 1998 days before his daughter-in-law was elected to a second term as lieutenant governor, grew up in a rented West Baltimore rowhouse. A victim of infantile polio, he had a withered arm as a lifelong reminder and couldn't attend elementary school until he was 8, after proving he could walk down the stairs to its restroom in the coal cellar in his leg braces.

David Townsend's parents met when they were 12. His father was a teacher and principal in Baltimore County for 40 years -- at Chase, Fifth District, Seventh District, Cockeysville and Pot Springs elementaries and more. His mother was a school secretary.

From a very young age, Townsend's father, a longtime Democrat, would bring his son to the polling booths. Young David handed out palm cards, often shaped as apples, to garner support for school construction bond issues and candidates supported by the teachers union. When he was 12, he recalled, he worked a booth at the state fair for the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy.

After Harvard, David and Kathleen Townsend moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he would first teach the great books curriculum at St. John's College there and she would earn a law degree from the University of New Mexico.

There they had their first daughter, Meaghan, at home. He read the entire nurse-midwife textbook, which told him everything that could go wrong, and then a book that police officers carry in the event they have to deliver babies, which he said gave him the confidence to know the birth would go fine. "It's one of the great books," he quipped.

They moved often in the ensuing years, each working at a variety of jobs. He earned his law degree from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and practiced for three years before their growing family -- they then had three children -- made him think that the demands of both parents working as attorneys could put a strain on home life. So he reconsidered teaching.

He reapplied for a position at St. John's in Annapolis and was appointed to the faculty in the fall of 1984. That year, they bought a Victorian house in Ruxton, not far from his childhood home.

'Relaxed with him'

The extent of Townsend's work life only begins at St. John's. He also works for the Corporate Council on Africa and was coordinator of its Task Force on HIV/AIDS. He moderates seminars for executives for the nonprofit Aspen Institute. He goes to prisons and inner-city schools as part of the Touchstones Discussion Project, leading discussions based on the great books curriculum in an effort to boost self-esteem and improve thinking and communication skills.

"When you meet him, you're very relaxed with him," said Wendell P. Jackson, a Morgan State University English professor who went to Loyola and Harvard with David Townsend. "He's not an egghead. He's a very human person. It's not something that gets in the way."

Townsend gives the impression he'd vote for his wife even if they weren't related. "It's a great fight. It's a fight for families and for values. We have great issues we're on the right side of," he said of the campaign, listing prescription drugs, student loans, responsible fiscal policy.

He calls her a great role model for their girls --she could become the state's first female governor, proof that they can do anything they set their minds to, as their parents have preached.

At the recent Essex Day celebration in Baltimore County, Townsend worked the crowd, talking about getting more lawn signs with one person, talking about get-out-the-vote strategies with another -- shaking hands, of course, along the way.

"Nice meeting you," Barbara Trent, working at a local candidate's booth, told him. "I've always wondered about you."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
64°