Gerald G. Altman Jr., known to generations of Baltimore radio talk show listeners as "Gerry from Pikesville," who gave voice to various liberal and progressive causes while challenging conservative hosts, died of heart failure Monday at Northwest Hospital.
The Owings Mills resident was 92.
"I knew him as Gerry from Pikesville and, later, Gerry from Owings Mills," said Dan Rodricks, a Baltimore Sun columnist who hosted a talk show on WBAL-AM from 1989 until 1995, and on WYPR-FM from 2008 until last fall.
"He was informed and wise, with really sophisticated opinions about politics at all levels and a healthy outrage about regressive thinking and bigotry," said Mr. Rodricks, who also hosts the podcast "Roughly Speaking." "From my point of view, he was a great contributor to provocative talk show radio. Some people found him loud and cantankerous, but that was Gerry's style, right?
"In what might have been our last conversation, during the debates over Obamacare, he became very emotional speaking of his daughter's health issues and the need for Americans to have health insurance," said Mr. Rodricks. "I heard from listeners who said the call brought them to tears."
The son of Gerald G. Altman, a salesman, and Hortense B. Altman, a saleswoman, Gerald George Altman was born and raised in Cincinnati. He graduated in 1941 from Hughes High School.
He enlisted in the Army Air Forces at the start of World War II and was trained to be a meteorologist. He served in North Carolina and Georgia before being discharged at war's end.
He received a bachelor's degree in 1948 from the University of Cincinnati and a law degree in 1950 from the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
Working through law school, Mr. Altman sold shoes and often earned a sale from women customers by reciting verses of Lord Byron's poetry he had committed to memory.
He practiced law in rural Ohio — "There was no money and he often got paid in eggs," said a son, David Altman of Cincinnati — then moved to Baltimore in 1952 and took a job as a supervising lawyer in the office of general counsel for the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Mr. Altman wrote black lung regulations for the department, which later became the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His work on black lung earned him a Presidential Award, said his son, an environmental attorney.
He retired in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Altman also received a commission as a judge advocate and served with the 459th Carrier Wing at Andrews Air Force Base. He attained the rank of colonel.
In 2005 he told The Baltimore Sun he considered radio "a retreat from the dreariness of life." He had a radio in every room of his Pikesville home so he would not miss a word as he went from room to room.
He got hooked on talk radio in the 1960s, his son said, as a way for him to get around the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from participating in partisan politics.
"He actually believes in the oath of the Athenian youth, which is that you leave the place better than you found it," David Altman told The Sun in the 2005 interview with his father. "His way of making it civically better was to call these talk shows, and I gotta tell you, it terrified my mother."
Not all listeners of talk show hosts shared Mr. Altman's outspoken opinions. After he denounced white segregationists and the States' Rights Party, the family home was egged and threatening phone calls arrived in the dead of night. He and his children were objects of death threats.
Threats did not deter Mr. Altman from sharing his opinions and ruminations on current events.
In nearly 40 years of calling talk shows, the elder Mr. Altman's opinions rubbed conservative talk show hosts including Les Kinsolving, Ron Smith, Tom Marr and Bruce Elliott the wrong way at times. Because he'd call so often, former WYPR host Marc Steiner, now heard on WEAA-FM, put in place a one-call-a-week rule.
"He reminds me of my father and a lot of guys in his generation, whose values came out of their Judaism, who loved their country and believed in serving it," Mr. Steiner told The Sun in 2005.
Mr. Altman's steady dialing even took him beyond Baltimore to NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show" and "Talk of the Nation."
He lamented that in recent years talk radio had grown more conservative, but said right-wing hosts were like a "magnet" from which he couldn't tear himself away.
"I think these guys need to have their peace disturbed," he said in 2005. "As a kid who was bookish, who grew up thin and wore glasses, I was accosted through a good deal of my early years by bullies, and I have now an almost reflexive reaction to bullies. I want to go where they are."
Mr. Kinsolving said in the article that such callers like Mr. Altman make their shows "more interesting."
"I want to make certain that they have a chance to express their opinion no matter how wrong they may be," Mr. Kinsolving told The Sun.
While living in Pikesville, Mr. Altman had been an active member and president of the Colonial Village Neighborhood and Improvement Association Inc., and was a backer of an annual ecumenical holiday gathering that included a Christmas tree and a menorah.
The Morning Sun
For the last seven years, he had been living at Atrium Village in Owings Mills.
"Frankly speaking, in recent years he has been spending more time watching MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. I guess he stopped calling talk shows about four years ago," his son said.
Mr. Altman's hobbies included attending political lectures and following current events.
His wife of 36 years, the former Elizabeth Cordelia Jones, died in 1981.
Funeral services for Mr. Altman will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.
In addition to his son, he is survived by another son, Larry Altman of North Oaks, Minn.; six grandchildren; and his companion, Estelle Bass of Owings Mills. His daughter, Susan Altman, died in 2009.