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  • Obituaries

Louis J. Grasmick, political activist, philanthropist and lumber company executive, dies

Louis J. Grasmick, political activist, philanthropist and lumber company executive, dies
Lou Grasmick (Karen Jackson / BALTIMORE SUN)

Louis J. Grasmick, a lumber company executive, philanthropist and political confidant of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, died Thursday from multiple organ failure at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The longtime resident of the Phoenix area of Baltimore County was 91.

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A former professional baseball player, Mr. Grasmick was a familiar figure in Maryland political circles for more than 50 years as he grew his lumber company into one of the largest on the East Coast. He helped develop the Canton waterfront, raised money to open the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture and later became involved with stem cell research for cardiac conditions.

"He was truly a Renaissance man, a real asset to the larger community and to his family," said his wife, former state schools superintendent Nancy Grasmick. "I was privileged to be married to him."

Born Louis Junior Grasmick in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton, he was the youngest of four children. His father died when he was 13, and he dropped out of city public schools in the eighth grade to help support his mother.

Later, he got a job with a lumber company on the waterfront and did so well as a salesman that the owner allowed him to buy into the business. He eventually became president of his own firm, the Louis J. Grasmick Lumber Co. Inc. in East Baltimore.

His early interest in sports was stimulated by boyhood dreams of pitching in the major leagues. He played for various Baltimore sandlot teams as a youth and impressed baseball scouts enough to receive a $500 bonus for signing a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 1944.

He played for eight seasons, reaching the major leagues in 1948 and pitching five innings. He singled in his only at-bat.

Mr. Grasmick worked for the lumber company in the offseasons. In its early years, it was located on Pier 6 and focused on maritime businesses such as shipping lines, freight forwarders and stevedoring firms. It would grow into an international company expanding to housing, commercial construction and bridge and highway building. Locally, his company led the roof rehabilitation of the B&O Museum.

In 1958, he was named Baltimore's "Outstanding Young Man of the Year" and became involved in politics, helping in the campaigns of several councilmen and raising money.

Mayor Theodore McKeldin appointed Mr. Grasmick to the Civic Center Commission in 1964 when that building — now known as Royal Farms Arena — was being constructed. It was on that panel that he forged a friendship with George L. Russell Jr., the first black Circuit Court judge in Maryland and Baltimore's first black city solicitor.

Mr. Grasmick played a lead role in the 1966 "Your home is your castle — protect it" gubernatorial campaign of segregationist Democratic nominee George P. Mahoney. But by 1971, Mr. Grasmick was backing Mr. Russell in his bid for mayor against Mr. Schaefer, who was then president of the Baltimore City Council and making his first bid for the city's top job.

"We were like brothers," Mr. Russell said in an interview. "He was like a cheerleader. He encouraged me [to run for mayor], and I was glad that I did it. It changed my life. I owe him so much."

Mr. Schaefer won, and he and Mr. Grasmick grew close. The mayor never hesitated to tap Mr. Grasmick for projects, his wife recalled. Among those was serving on the board of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, and leading an effort to raise money for the homeless called House with a Heart that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Schaefer was able to tease out the talents of people, in particular the business community, and like other businessmen, Governor Schaefer gave him assignments," Mrs. Grasmick said.

Amid the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor in the 1970s, Mr. Schaefer turned his attention to Pier 6, which had been home to Mr. Grasmick's lumber yard for three decades but which the mayor saw as the perfect spot for a concert pavilion.

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Mr. Grasmick agreed to move and identified a tract of land along Canton's industrial waterfront. One night in 1978, they climbed a hill of rocks under a half-sunken freighter, surrounded by rotting piers and boarded-up factories.

"He told me to build housing there," Mr. Grasmick told The Baltimore Sun in 2000. "He didn't ask me — he told me. I had never built anything before. But that's the way Schaefer was. He really challenged people."

His lumber company moved to Quad Avenue, underneath an elevated section of I-95, and working with builders, he developed the first 40 waterfront homes in Canton as well as several hundred boating piers.

The Anchorage was one of several development projects Mr. Grasmick would become involved with, including Harbor East. It was also where he met his future wife, the former Dr. Nancy Streeks.

"He was a born salesman, I'll tell you that," Mrs. Grasmick said with a laugh, recalling their courtship.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. remembers as a young legislator being taken under the wing of many "Scheafer-ites," including Mr. Grasmick, who he said was a "very principled, very tough guy."

"A blessing from the Grasmicks was a big deal," Ehrlich said. He recalled Mr. and Mrs. Grasmick holding hands while sitting inside his home, quizzing him on his intentions to run for governor.

Over the years, Mr. Grasmick and Mr. Russell paired up for many ventures, including raising money for the Harbor Bank of Maryland, where Mr. Grasmick was a director, and Provident Hospital, which catered to the black community.

When then-Governor Schaefer was putting together a commission to create the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, he asked Mr. Russell to lead it. After being rebuffed twice, the governor tapped Mr. Grasmick to recruit Mr. Russell.

"It will be the most important thing you have ever done in your career, George," Mr. Grasmick told him.

"I was hesitant," Mr. Russell said in an interview. "But because of Lou's energy, I said, 'You'll work with me? OK, I'll do it.'"

Among other charitable causes, the Grasmicks donated $2 million to the Johns Hopkins Heart Institute. Mrs. Grasmick said her husband suffered cardiac problems, which also motivated his work with the Capricor Therapeutics Inc., a biotech company involved in cardiovascular research.

"He said, 'This could save lives. We have to do it,'" she recalled. "He was always thinking, what is the greater good, how can we help?"

The former ballplayer maintained an interest in sports throughout his life. He was the founder of Baltimore's highly successful Tops in Sports banquet, which brought outstanding players in many sports to the city for an annual dinner, and was credited with returning the Navy-Notre Dame football game to the city in 1987.

It was Mr. Grasmick who arranged the professional debut of Sugar Ray Leonard in Baltimore after the young boxer had won a gold medal for the United States in the 1976 Olympics. He remained an avid Orioles fan until his death, his wife said.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Grace United Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St., Baltimore.

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In addition to his wife of 31 years, Mr. Grasmick is survived by a son, Grant I. Grasmick of Phoenix, Baltimore County; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun reporter Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.

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