Former state Sen. Clarence W. Blount rose from poverty to travel in the highest orbit of Maryland politics, and that circle gathered last night for a memorial service honoring his quiet strength and principled leadership.
The stage at the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University was lined with a majority of Maryland's congressional delegation as well as current and former city, state and judicial leaders who came together for the tribute.
Baltimore state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who moderated the service, warned that she would "pull on your coattails" if speakers exceeded two minutes.
"Clarence would never have agreed to a two-minute time limit," said U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who praised Blount's commitent to education and historically black colleges.
"His colleagues knew he was in public life to serve, and his colleagues honored him for it," Sarbanes said. "I was strengthened by his support and guided by his example."
Blount died April 12 of complications from a stroke. He was 81.
He served 31 years in the Maryland Senate, joining the body in 1971 and rising to several positions of prominence before deciding not to seek re-election last year.
In 1983, he was selected majority leader -- the first African-American to hold the position.
He became the first black chairman of a Senate committee, the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, in 1987.
"Senator Blount was a shining example of all that can be good in government," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said last night. He added that Blount's calming presence was missed during the fractious General Assembly session that just concluded.
"I missed his voice, the soothing baritone," Miller said. "When he stood up, a calm came over the Senate. He restored order at least for a little while."
As he delivered his final sentence, Miller broke into tears and returned to his seat, where he was embraced briefly by former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Blount's colleagues frequently called him "the conscience of the Senate," a reference to his even temper and civility that earned him respect and admiration.
"Clarence Blount had the talent to calm a meeting down so we can focus on results," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. "Clarence Blount was a bridge among our very large egos."
Born in rural North Carolina, Blount came to Baltimore as a young boy and used education as a springboard to success.
"He was like a father," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. "We had a lot in common -- sons of sharecroppers, people telling us what we couldn't be."
Last night's service was held on the campus of the school from which Blount graduated in 1950. His time at Morgan had been interrupted by military service; he was drafted into the Army in 1946 shortly after enrolling there, and served in the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Division. Not far from the auditorium is Blount Towers, a dormitory housing 600 Morgan students.
Inside the hall, Blount's body lay in a casket at the foot of the stage, with a folded American flag by his head and a portrait of the senator.
The Morgan State choir punctuated the tributes with hymns.
Also in attendance were Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In Baltimore, Blount was known as much as an educator as a politician.
He taught junior high geography and eventually became principal of Dunbar High School. In 1973, he took a job at the former Community College of Baltimore, where he served as chairman of the social services department and as executive assistant to the president.
"He remembered what happened in the past, and he was determined to make the future better," Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said at the service. "His legacy is assured because of what he has done for those young people."
Blount's name sometimes surfaced as a possible candidate for mayor or Congress, and there was some talk that he would be tapped as a running mate to Harry R. Hughes in 1982.
But Blount remained where he was; last year, during his final hours in the State House chambers, he called serving as a senator the greatest honor of his life.
A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Grace Presbyterian Church, 2604 Banister Road. He will be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.