The port of Baltimore was renamed last night for Helen Delich Bentley, whose work on its behalf over a half-century as a journalist, legislator and consultant was born of a devotion to the city's waterfront instilled by her mother, who'd arrived by steamship.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. officially named the state's public marine terminals the "Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore" yesterday evening, creating a permanent legacy for the former congresswoman.
The governor made the announcement at the South Locust Point cruise ship terminal during the port of Baltimore's 300th anniversary fundraising gala, the centerpiece of a campaign to raise the profile of the industrial facility that employs thousands and contributes millions of dollars to the economy.
Bentley, who helped organize the events, wasn't told in advance of the honor - one of the first of its kind for a public U.S. port, which unlike airports are not typically named for people.
"For more than five decades, the name of Helen Delich Bentley has been synonymous with the port of Baltimore," Ehrlich said earlier in a statement. "There has been no one who has championed the vital role the port plays in both the global economy and our everyday lives more than Helen."
Bentley, legendary for her tough exterior and tenaciousness in port affairs, received a standing ovation as Ehrlich made the announcement, calling her "the godmother of the port."
"I'm speechless," she said. "Thank you, everyone."
Ehrlich said a new logo and signs reflecting the change will be placed next year.
Bentley is one of several women prominent in Maryland politics to have a crane at the port named for her, but this is a much larger recognition.
She said in an interview this week that the port "has been like my child."
According to the acknowledgement in her new book, The Great Port of Baltimore: Its First 300 years, Bentley credits her mother, who immigrated through the port of Baltimore by way of a North German Lloyd steamship, with spurring her interest in the port.
Bentley, 82, grew up in a small Nevada mining town. After graduating from the University of Missouri on the same day her mother, Mary Kovich Bjelich, became an American citizen, she began looking for a reporter's job.
She said she wanted to work "anywhere - except the society page - in any city room on any Eastern newspaper."
She landed in 1945 at The Sun in Baltimore and was assigned the port beat. That turned into a documentary series on WMAR-TV called The Port That Built a City and State, which ran for 15 years.
That work, in turn, caught the attention of President Richard M. Nixon. He appointed her chairwoman in 1969 of the Federal Maritime Commission, making her one of the nation's highest-ranking women in government at the time.
Bentley continued her port work as a congresswoman from 1985 to 1995, representing Maryland's 2nd Congressional District. Upon leaving Congress, she became a consultant and continues to advise the port of Baltimore.
She said in an interview this week that she wanted the port's 300th anniversary to help people understand the facility's role in bringing them everything from food to cars to shoes, even if most of them never see the inside of a terminal and may have barely acknowledged its existence before a political controversy mushroomed last winter over a short-lived entrance by an Arab company.
Peter Tirschwell, editorial director of the Journal of Commerce, a trade magazine about the transportation industry, called Bentley a "pioneer" in the maritime industry in Baltimore and nationally.
"She took nothing more than a beat on a daily newspaper and made it into a national force in support of the American maritime industry," he said. "It's an extraordinary story."
Over time, industry officials say, Bentley had a hand in most events in the port's history from creating the Maryland Port Authority, the precursor to the Maryland Port Administration, to transforming the port into a modern facility open to containerized cargo and trucks, and ensuring the channels were dredged to accommodate large ships.
Namings are an old tradition in politics - often to give thanks for a job well done, to honor someone posthumously or to curry political favor. But naming a port for a person is not common, according to those in the maritime industry.
There are several terminals named for people, according to the American Association of Port Authorities and the Journal of Commerce, including the Charles P. Howard Terminal and Ben E. Nutter Marine Container Terminal at Oakland, Calif.; the Wando Welch Terminal at Charleston, S.C.; and the Conley Terminal at Boston. The entire port of Miami-Dade was named for Dante B. Fascell, a former congressman, in 1998.
Baltimore has no port terminals named for people, but has bestowed names on five cranes, including the Bentley one. The name of Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native who became the first African-American Supreme Court justice, was recently tied to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Former governor and mayor, and current comptroller William Donald Schaefer has numerous facilities named for him, including the international terminal at the airport and a downtown tower that houses state agencies.
Many in Baltimore's maritime community have said the 300th anniversary events have been a welcome distraction after a tumultuous year that included the resignation of a well-respected port director in a public squabble with Ehrlich's transportation secretary. Bentley led the search for a new director, and her committee chose F. Brooks Royster III, formerly a top executive at the Miami port.
Bentley has been a "rock to Baltimore's port community for over 50 years," Royster said in a statement yesterday. "Her maritime knowledge, experience and advocacy have significantly influenced the port's visibility and reputation internationally."