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Joseph J. Challmes

Joseph J. Challmes was a professional writer and horse racing fan.
Joseph J. Challmes was a professional writer and horse racing fan. (Courtesy of Bonnie Schupp)

Joseph J. Challmes, a professional writer for nearly four decades whose love of writing was only equaled by his love of the ponies, died of a heart attack Feb. 9 at Mercy Medical Center. He was 65.

Mr. Challmes and his companion, Margie Roswell, had spent the evening attending a performance of the Stoop Storytelling series at Center Stage. He was stricken as he was getting into his car.

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"Joe was a good reporter, had a good ear, and liked looking out for the little guy," said David Michael Ettlin, a retired night editor for The Baltimore Sun who was a longtime friend and colleague. "He saw magic in everything and was a larger-than-life storyteller."

The son of Ambrose Joseph Challmes, a nursing assistant, and Frances Tiralla Challmes, a homemaker, Joseph Jerome Challmes was born in Baltimore and raised in Govans.

After graduating from Archbishop Curley High School, Mr. Challmes earned a bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1973.

He began his career at The Baltimore Sun in the late 1960s as an advertising service messenger and later moved to the city room after being promoted to copy boy.

Mr. Challmes advanced to the position of editorial assistant in 1970 and a year later became a general assignment, police and obituary reporter. He also handled investigative assignments and worked on the city desk as a rewrite man.

"Joe was probably the fastest writer I've ever seen, but he cheated. I'm sure he used more than two fingers, and he would leave out words … like verbs," said Mr. Ettlin in a eulogy at Mr. Challmes' funeral Feb. 13 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville. "I'm sure the verbs were in his head as he wrote each sentence, but he was thinking faster than he could type."

In addition to being a newspaperman, Mr. Challmes had a fascination for horse racing and handicapping, and persuaded his editors to give him a daily sports column that he wrote under the nom de plume The Fashionable Fraud.

"He loved the racetrack and was good at handicapping. Joe loved the exotic bets rather than the straight-up bets," said Mr. Ettlin in a telephone interview. "He was very good at observing horses and track doings."

When Mr. Challmes marketed a service where bettors paid in advance for his favorite pick, he called it the "lock of the week," and when he had a really great bet, it was "a mortal lock," said Mr. Ettlin.

On May 2, 1981, with $40 in his pocket, Mr. Challmes went to New York for the Belmont Stakes, and then proceeded to cash winning tickets after the first eight races.

When a horse named Maudlin won the ninth race, Mr. Challmes had another winner, and he had picked the second- and third-place horses, thereby winning the Triple. He came back to Baltimore with "more money than he had ever had at one time," reported The Baltimore Sun.

Mr. Challmes left daily newspapering in 1977, when he went to work as an advertising copywriter with Bernard Dunn Advertising, while at the same time keeping his hand in the news world as the North American horse racing correspondent for Reuters, a position he held until 1986.

In 1981, Mr. Challmes and his then-wife, the former Sharon Healy, whom he later divorced, sold their Irvington home and purchased a 51/2-acre farm near Westminster, which they named Minstrel Boy Farm and where they bred thoroughbreds.

Mr. Challmes worked for two years as a copywriter for Response Dynamics Inc., a direct-mail fundraising agency in Washington. He left in 1988 to become a full-time freelance writer. His work was published in The New York Times, South China Post and Sydney Morning Herald, as well as by such diverse organizations as Greenpeace and the Psychic Friends Network.

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He was senior copywriter from 1994 to 1996 for Inphomation Inc., the parent company of Psychic Friends Network.

From 1996 to 2001, Mr. Challmes was marketing director for Sports Eye Inc., which publishes College & Pro Football Newsweekly, Sportsform, Sports Eye and Harness Eye in Port Washington, N.Y. He also worked as a columnist for those publications.

Mr. Challmes returned to freelance writing in 2001 and continued as a columnist for football magazines and as a gambling columnist for Sportsform and College & Pro Football Newsweekly.

He was the author of "The Preakness: A History," published in 1975 on the 100th anniversary of the race.

"Challmes has an eye for the drama of the event, he cares about statistical minutiae of racing, although he doesn't overwhelm the reader with them, he's enchanted with the zany world of the track and he's a keen observer of the social and historical context in which all these things mix," wrote a reviewer in The Sun.

Mr. Challmes and his then-companion, Cheri Moats, moved near Hanover, Pa., where they raised and bred horses at their Kismet Farm. After the relationship ended in 2004, he moved to a large apartment beneath a strip mall in Hanover.

Mr. Challmes' return to Baltimore in 2010 coincided with the loss of a leg to an aneurysm and gangrene.

He never lost his interest in storytelling, and he participated five times as a contributor to Stoop Storytelling at Center Stage; he also appeared at SpeakeasyDC.

One of his stories was based on losing the leg, for a show on the theme of, "Scaling the Mountain: Stories of resilience, determination, and battling the odds."

"It told of how the last time he walked on two legs was to an Orioles game at Camden Yards — and making good on his vow to overcome his setback and in his first outing in recovery, to walk to the stadium the next season, which he accomplished," said Mr. Ettlin. "Joe called himself 'the happiest one-legged man in America.'"

Mr. Challmes was also an inveterate poker player.

"Most recently he told of being knocked out of a big-money poker tournament at the new Horseshoe Casino by a grandmotherly card shark," Mr. Ettlin said in his eulogy.

In recent years, Mr. Challmes, who had planned to move to Charles Town, W.Va., to be near his favorite race track, resided at the Symphony Center apartments in Mount Vernon.

Former Sun reporter Patricia Rouzer wrote a lengthy Facebook tribute to her old colleague.

"Rest in peace, my friend. May we someday meet again, railbirds at the Saratoga finish line, basking in the warm summer sun, clutching fists full of only win tickets," wrote Ms. Rouzer.

In addition to his former wife, Mr. Challmes is survived by Ms. Roswell, his companion of 7 years; a son, Alexander Challmes of Baltimore; a daughter, Rebecca "Becky" Challmes McGee of Taneytown; his former companion Ms. Moats, with whom he had two sons, Jacob Moats of Philadelphia and Joshua "Mouse" Moats of Pittsburgh; and five grandchildren.

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