David R. Owen

David R. Owen
(Handout, Baltimore Sun)

David Rogers Owen, an internationally known maritime lawyer and accomplished yachtsman, died Friday in his sleep of unknown causes at the Blakehurst retirement community in Towson.

The longtime Riderwood resident was 97.


"The death of David Owen is the passing of an era. He practiced during the Golden Age of maritime law in the post-World War II years, when there were hundreds of American-flagged ships and ship owners," said a nephew, Tony Whitman, a maritime lawyer with the Baltimore firm of Ober/Kaler.

"He was fortunate to have practiced in that time. He was practicing at a time when things were really hopping," he said.


The son of a career Army surgeon, Mr. Owen was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and raised at various U.S. military installations in California, Texas, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

After graduating in 1932 from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Owen earned a bachelor's degree in 1935 in three years from the University of Virginia, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

He earned a master's degree in economics in 1937, also from the University of Virginia, where he earned his law degree two years later.

Mr. Owen moved in 1939 to Baltimore, where he began practicing general law at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes.

He worked in a variety of fields including "corporations, estates, trials, and appeals," Mr. Owen wrote in an unpublished autobiographical sketch. He described his legal work as "everything from admiralty to zoning and considered it a very valuable experience."

Mr. Owen was away from the firm for five years during World War II, when he enlisted in the Navy. Initially, he served in naval intelligence before becoming executive officer and navigator aboard the USS Ordronaux, a destroyer serving in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

One of Mr. Owens' great wartime experiences occurred on Good Friday, April 7, 1944, when the Ordronaux, with other ships, successfully attacked and brought to the surface U-boat 856 in rough North Atlantic waters south of Nova Scotia, which the group then sank.

At great peril to the safety of the Ordronaux, its captain ordered it stopped to pick up 17 floundering German seamen, including the U-856's captain, Fritz Whittenberg, after the U-boat went down.

"I strapped on my .45 and went to the quarterdeck, which was virtually underwater from the rough seas," Mr. Owen said in a 1998 unpublished oral interview.

The first person aboard the Ordronaux was the U-boat captain, at which point, Mr. Owen aimed his pistol.

"He said in perfect English, 'I don't think you'll be needing that today,'" recalled Mr. Owen. "Had it been possible to bore a hole in the deck and drop me through to the bottom of the ocean, I would have been quite satisfied. It was indeed, the ultimate put-down."

After the war, Mr. Owen remained an active Naval Reservist, attaining the rank of captain and serving for 33 years.


After returning to his old law firm, the young lawyer gained a measure of fame in 1946 when he did legal work for H.L. Mencken, who brought suit against his Hollins Street neighbor, Charles Fortenbaugh, because his barking dog disturbed the writer.

After newspapers and wire services picked up the story, the dog that tortured "The Sage of Baltimore" was removed by its owner.

In 1953, Mr. Owen, in a legal capacity, helped incorporate the A.S. Abell Company Foundation Inc., after the owners of The Sun, Sunday Sun and Evening Sun established it.

From his young age throughout his life, Mr. Owen said, he had "a love of anything ocean and anything pertaining to the ocean."

By the early 1950s, Mr. Owen exclusively focused his legal career on admiralty law. During his career, he had any number of highly visible cases, such as representing a ship owner whose vessel collided in 1953 with the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge over the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. The collision knocked out railroad service to the Delmarva Peninsula for six months.

"We won the case, which is understandable only to an admiralty lawyer, in that we achieved limitation of liability," he said in the oral interview.

James W. Bartlett III, a maritime lawyer at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, was a friend and colleague.

"David really was responsible for bringing maritime law to the firm in the early 1950s. And through the years, he handled various maritime cases including collisions at sea, insurance, casualty and liability cases, and was well thought of as an appellate lawyer," said Mr. Bartlett, a member of the firm since 1975.

"He's also the man who taught me the trade of maritime law and he was quite a teacher," said Mr. Bartlett. "He was extremely exacting and a person who took lots of pride in what he put out and that was good training for me as a lawyer."

Mr. Owen, who rose to become chairman of his law firm, retired in 1983. He remained of counsel to the firm through the 1990s, and wrote and lectured widely on maritime matters.

Mr, Owen had been a member of the Maryland Bar Association and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He had served twice as president of the Maritime Law Association of the United States.

In addition to being an avid yachtsman, Mr. Owen collected marine art.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, 1401 Carrollton Ave., Ruxton, where he was a member.

Surviving are his wife of 40 years, the former Eleanor Abell Adams; a son, David J. Owen of Bridgeport, Conn.; a stepson, Charles S. Adams Jr. of Newport, R.I.; two stepdaughters, Margaret A. "Peggy" Szczerbicki of Wiltondale and Eleanor A. "Ellie" Lewis of Norfolk, Va.; a brother, John J. Owen of Charlottesville, Va.; and a grandson. An earlier marriage to the former Isabel Whitman ended in divorce.

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