William Warner

The Baltimore Sun

William Whitesides Warner, a former Foreign Service officer, museum director and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose 1977 book Beautiful Swimmers chronicled the life of the Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and the watermen who pursued them, died of Alzheimer's disease April 18 at his home in Washington. He was 88.

Mr. Warner, who was known as Willie, was born in New York City and spent summers with his brother on Wreck Pond, a tidal estuary, in Sea Girt, N.J., where they spent their days exploring the marine and natural life they found there.

"Stalking muskrats and blue crabs, spying on mink, raccoons and shore birds" aroused Mr. Warner's interest in nature, Tom Horton, a former Sun environmental columnist, wrote in a 2007 profile in The Washingtonian magazine. "Later came escapes to the Jersey Pine Barrens, the Maine Woods, the tropical rain forests, Patagonia."

Mr. Warner graduated in 1938 from St. Paul's School in New Hampshire and earned a degree in geology from Princeton University in 1943.

After graduating from Princeton, Mr. Warner enlisted in the Navy and served as a photograph interpreter in the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto.

After the war, he and his brother moved to Stowe, Vt., where they operated a ski resort they named Warner Brothers.

In 1953, Mr. Warner went to work as a public affairs officer in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Chile for the U.S. Information Agency.

When his friend R. Sargent Shriver became first director of the Peace Corps in 1961, Mr. Warner worked as program coordinator for Latin America for several years.

After two years, he moved to the Smithsonian Institution, where he was assistant secretary for public services and played an instrumental role in establishing Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian Associates. He also helped establish the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival held annually on the Mall in Washington.

He retired in 1978.

While working at the Smithsonian in the 1960s, Mr. Warner began exploring the Chesapeake Bay on weekends and was charmed by its creeks, backwaters and rural harbors, as well as by the patois of the watermen who inhabit Smith, Deal and Hoopers islands, whose yarns he never wearied of hearing.

He was nearing 60 when he sat down to write Beautiful Swimmers.

"It was a biological, historical and sociological gem: an elegantly wrought, scientifically accurate portrait of a culture that existed all around us. He paid equal tribute to crabber and crab," Mr. Horton wrote in The Washingtonian article.

Even so, Mr. Warner remained fascinated by the mystery and mystique of the blue crab.

"This is why the Chesapeake watermen endow the crab with legendary intelligence, strength and 'cussedness.' On winter nights the watermen like to tell 'crab yarns' on each other, in which blue crabs, small as they are, assume the power of Paul Bunyan's blue ox Babe and perform great acts of malice against lesser beings," he wrote.

Mr. Warner concluded: "One cannot sit around very long and listen passively to this kind of talk. I have not been able to, at least. Inevitably, there comes the effort to find out what it all means."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, on whose board of trustees Mr. Warner was a fixture for several decades, said Beautiful Swimmers marked a turning point in the public's appreciation for the blue crab and its relevance to the bay.

"He was depressed by the recent 10-year decline in blue crab production, and it worried him greatly," Mr. Baker said yesterday. "Also, in addition to the blue crab, he thought the bay commercial fisherman was also becoming an endangered species."

Mr. Horton, who was encouraged by Mr. Warner to write books about the bay, said, "Beautiful Swimmers was followed two years later by James Michener's Chesapeake. Between the two of them, they opened the bay to lots of writers and the public."

Mr. Warner's second book, Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman, for which he spent months at sea aboard Russian, German, Spanish and English trawlers, was published in 1983.

"It was an exceptionally well-written book that didn't do as well as Beautiful Swimmers. It was about the foreign fleets and their factory ships that were clearing out the ocean," Mr. Horton said. "It may be the best book he ever wrote. He was a fine writer and a damned good reporter."

Mr. Warner also wrote At Peace With All Their Neighbors, a history of the Roman Catholic Church in the nation's capital, published in 1994, and Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist, which was published in 1999.

Mr. Warner, who was described by Mr. Horton as an "impeccably dressed and courtly man, who like Paul Newman, gets better looking as he gets older," never learned to type or use a computer.

Mr. Warner's love of crabs was not strictly scientific.

"I love a good soft-shell crab, and there's nothing better than beautiful fresh crab meat with a little avocado and lemon," he told The Sun in a 1977 interview.

Plans for a memorial Mass were incomplete yesterday.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Kathleen McMahon; two sons, John B. Warner and Andrew H. Warner of Washington; four daughters, Alletta Drakoulias of Los Angeles, Alexandra Nash, Georgianna Kaempfer and Elizabeth Brown, all of Washington; and nine grandchildren.


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