Gilbert Sandler, spinner of old Baltimore stories, dies at 95

Gilbert Sandler, a Baltimore historian whose nostalgic stories of old Baltimore were told in The Sun and on WYPR-FM, died Wednesday.

Gilbert Sandler, whose nostalgic stories of old Baltimore were told in The Sun and on WYPR-FM, died Wednesday afternoon of cancer at Roland Park Place. He was 95 and formerly lived in Mount Washington.


Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Joseph Sandler, an East Baltimore pharmacist who tended to 1918 influenza patients and was later an optometrist, and Minnie Ziev, who, like her husband, was a Lithuanian immigrant. His parents met at the drugstore.


In a 1957 Sun article, he described his father’s drugstore: “When a child had a stomach ache his mother brought him in to the store, or came and reported his symptoms. Father would prescribe accordingly — frequently castor oil as a starter. … Minor infections [were] lanced, treated and bandaged right in the store by my father.”

Mr. Sandler attended Garrison Junior High School and was a 1941 graduate of Baltimore City College, of which he remained an active alumnus and donor to its speech and debate program.

During World War II, he served in the Navy aboard the USS Leonis as a navigator. He was a petty officer first class and participated in the Pacific battles of Saipan and Peleliu.

After the war he earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and later received a master’s degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University.

He went into the advertising business and worked for local agencies. In 1956, he founded Gilbert Sandler and Associates, an advertising and public relations firm he ran from an office in the Standard Oil Building. He did work for Shofer Furniture, Sun Life Insurance and First Federal of Annapolis.

In 1975, after contributing freelance articles to The Sun, he began writing a weekly article, “Baltimore Glimpses,” that appeared on the editorial pages of the old Evening Sun. It dealt with nostalgic Baltimore topics and brought him a devoted following. He later also continued writing in the Baltimore Jewish Times, where an editorial cited his “graceful pen, erudite wit, keen intellect, folksy manner and wondrous power of recall.”

Mr. Sandler told how the staff of the Hochschild Kohn department store once had to improvise vacuum cleaners to inflate the balloon animals for its Thanksgiving parade, or of the final run of the Royal Blue passenger train as it departed from Mount Royal Station.

"The only gift I ever really had was to remember all these things — the little bricks that made up the household of my life, I guess,” he said in a 2000 Sun article.


Stanley Heuisler, who knew Mr. Sandler for 40 years, said, “He was important in perpetuating Baltimore’s institutional memory. And he made his histories come alive with his razor-sharp memory of people, buildings, food, streetcar lines, politicos, theaters, movie houses, sports stars, neighborhoods, night clubs, visiting celebrities and restaurants.”

Mr. Sandler later took those stories and told them on WYPR radio, where he established another audience.

“His stories were funny, entertaining and hopeful,” said WYPR Manager Anthony Brandon. “He himself was a delight. We loved to kid and laugh. He was one of my dearest friends, and I will miss him terribly.”

Friends said part of Mr. Sandler’s charm was his Baltimore accent.

“Who else could properly pronounce Lombard Street as “Lumberd?” said Mr. Heuisler, a former Baltimore magazine editor.

After selling his ad agency, Mr. Sandler joined the Abell Foundation as communications director, a post he held for 26 years.


Mr. Sandler also wrote books about Baltimore. His first was “The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore’s Little Italy.” He also wrote about the Jewish community, Baltimore in World War II and how small a town Baltimore can be.

Wearing a crumpled canvas rain hat and bow tie, he made numerous public speaking appearances.

Former Sun feature writer Carl Schoettler described Mr. Sandler: “He has the natty dash of a public relations man. … He looks a bit like Bert Lahr, about midway between "The Wizard of Oz" and "Waiting for Godot."

"I grew up downtown, " Mr. Sandler said in 2000. "If you grew up downtown in the ’30s, you were very conscious that the tumble of life was downtown, the restaurants, the movies. The factories were all downtown. The great giant men's clothing factories that dominated the world markets were downtown!”

Dr. Solomon Snyder, a close friend and Johns Hopkins neuroscientist, recalled their initial meeting at Beth Am Synagogue.

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“Gil was making jokes, as he always did, and had better judgment than anyone in the room that day,” Dr. Synder said. “We began a tradition of having a Saturday morning breakfast before going to shul which continued.”


After being diagnosed with cancer, Mr. Sandler remained buoyant and received many friends.

Not long ago, Joan Jacobson, a friend from the Evening Sun and the Abell Foundation, brought him a corned beef sandwich.

“He was the happiest dying man I ever met,” she said.

Services for Mr. Sandler will be held at 9 a.m. Friday at Sol Levinson and Brothers, 8900 Reisterstown Road.

His wife of 50 years, Joan Strouse Sandler, who formerly taught English at Western High School, died in 2002. He met her through her father, who was also in the advertising business.

Survivors include a son, Joseph E. Sandler of Washington, D.C.; two daughters, Marie Laura Schott of Westminster and Judy Strouse Sandler Klein of Stevenson; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.