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W. Dale Hess, Harford County businessman and politician, dies

W. Dale Hess was a Harford County businessman who rose to majority floor leader in the Maryland House of Delegates and was later convicted — then cleared — on charges in a federal political probe during the Gov. Marvin Mandel administration.
W. Dale Hess was a Harford County businessman who rose to majority floor leader in the Maryland House of Delegates and was later convicted — then cleared — on charges in a federal political probe during the Gov. Marvin Mandel administration.(HARRIS / Baltimore Sun)

W. Dale Hess, a Harford County businessman who rose to majority floor leader in the Maryland House of Delegates and was later convicted — then cleared — of charges in a federal political probe during the Gov. Marvin Mandel administration, died of complications from cancer Saturday at his Fallston home. He was 86.

He owned interests in land, motels, apartments and shopping centers in Harford County, many along the Interstate 95 corridor.

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"My father helped get I-95 built as we know it through Harford County," said his daughter, Martha Schumacher of Fallston, recounting her father's role in shaping the county.

Mr. Hess was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in 1977. A federal Appeals Court later wiped out the charges — years after Mr. Hess was sentenced to three years in prison and served 18 months at the Maxwell Air Force Base federal prison camp in Alabama.

Born in Harford County, he was a 1947 graduate of Bel Air High School. He initially worked on a family dairy farm owned by his parents, St. Clair Hess and Anita Chenworth. In the 1940s he was state president of Future Farmers of America. He was later active in the Harford County Democratic Club and the Harford County Real Estate Board.

He was a working farmer when he entered the House of Delegates.

"He was an influential member of the General Assembly," said former U.S. Attorney for Maryland George Beall.

"I had nothing but respect on his integrity. He was man of his word," said Mr. Beall. "He would tell you outright if he could help [or] if he could not help. He would not vacillate. He was refreshing to deal with in that respect."

A 1988 Baltimore Sun article described Mr. Hess as "a wide-chested man with clipped gray hair, the interminable smile of a businessman and a booming, confident voice."

Mr. Hess was elected to the House of Delegates in 1954, and later became a political ally of Maryland governors J. Millard Tawes and Marvin Mandel.

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Patrick Hess of Fallston recalled that his father had a legislative role in the ending of segregation in Maryland.

"My father was instrumental in bringing the forces in Annapolis together," said the younger Mr. Hess. "The western counties were for desegregation, but the Eastern Shore wanted to keep segregation. He brought the forces together. He was always very proud of this. He would talk to me about this years later."

He was also known for a few memorable malapropisms on the House floor. "He once said, 'Let's stop beating a dead horse to death,'" noted a 1975 Sun article.

In the early 1960s he and a cousin, William Hess, began buying land on Fallston's Green Road.

"They built houses, and that's how it all started," said his son. "He was part of the people who planned the route of I-95. He kept a picture of himself and President John F. Kennedy when they cut the ribbon on the expressway."

"In 1962, as the Kennedy highway was being constructed through the northeastern section of the state, Mr. Hess began buying key land parcels near the highway's interchanges," said the 1975 Sun article. "By 1964, the Hess family held land at four of the six toll exits in Maryland, totaling more than 1,000 acres."

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A Sun article said that in 1964, Mr. Hess asked Mr. Mandel to join him in a Harford County land venture. "It was the beginning of a personal and business relationship that led to Governor Mandel's plight," the article stated.

In 1962, Mr. Hess became vice chair of the Maryland Ways and Means Committee under Mr. Mandel, then a delegate who chaired the committee. Mr. Hess became the Democratic majority floor leader of the House of Delegates and served in that capacity for several years.

He left the House of Delegates in 1970 and became a vice president of Tidewater Insurance, in addition to his other business interests.

His legal problems arose several years later. "On Aug. 23, 1977, the roof caved in on the son of a dairy farmer," recounted the 1988 Sun article. "Mr. Hess and five others, including his then-close friend Marvin Mandel, were indicted on more than 20 counts of racketeering and mail fraud charges. All were convicted. … The scandal revolved around Mr. Hess and other co-defendants giving the governor a secret share in their valuable interest in property."

Mr. Hess served his time in prison, then returned to his business interests and brought in his children to continue the real estate and development work he started.

"There were no winners. It was a hiatus in my life, a numbing experience," he told The Sun in 1988 as he reflected on his legal troubles. "I didn't go back to Baltimore for a long time."

The article also said, "When he emerged from jail, Mr. Hess spent time soul searching. … He says it was his family's enduring belief in his innocence that carried him through the tunnel."

In this period, Mr. Hess said, he was unable to get financial backing from Maryland banks. He said he kept trying and eventually found a York, Pa., bank whose officers said they didn't care about his conviction as long as the numbers worked.

In 1989, after a lengthy appeals process that included Mr. Mandel and the other co-defendants, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an earlier federal ruling clearing them all of the charges. Mr. Hess, who had lost his real estate license, had it reinstated.

He was hired by landowners of Constant Friendship in Harford County to develop the large tract. He also owned Comfort Inns and Best Western franchises in Cecil and Harford counties and in Emmitsburg.

His holdings included the Aberdeen shopping plaza and the Warwick apartments, as well as Denny's restaurant franchises and a Burger King on Route 24.

"I so enjoyed to work," he told The Sun. "It's a lot of fun to wheel and deal, and wheeling and dealing in land is what I'm good at."

A funeral Mass will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. John Roman Catholic Church, 13305 Long Green Pike in Hydes.

In addition to his son and daughter, survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Marie Ritchie; two other sons, W. Dale Hess Jr. of Fallston and Phillip Hess of Bradenton, Fla,; a brother, Edwin Hess of Fallston; nine grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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