The Rev. William E. Polk Jr., a career Navy officer who became an ordained United Methodist minister, died Sunday at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson of complications from the flu. He was 89.
"Bill was always on the side of inclusion and justice in life to both his church and community," said the Rev. Emora Brannan, who was pastor of Grace United Methodist Church for two decades before retiring in 2011. "He was a wonderful pastor and a good man."
The son of William E. Polk Sr., a postmaster, and Juliette House Polk, an educator, William Earl Polk Jr., was born and raised in Corning, Ark., where he graduated from high school. He was a member of the Polk family that included President James K. Polk, who had no children.
"Having never seen the ocean, he joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1943," said a daughter, Laura Siegel of Timonium.
The Navy sent Mr. Polk to Officers Candidate School at Tulane University, and he was promoted in 1945 to commander and assigned to the supply corps.
His first assignment after World War II was in the Philippines, where he delivered payroll by airplane to sailors around the island, carrying a million dollars in cash and a revolver, family members said.
Mr. Polk also saw sea duty aboard the USS Richey, a destroyer, and the USS Talladega, an attack transport.
He retired from the Navy in 1963 and was appointed pastor of Bowie United Methodist Church that year even though he had not been ordained, family members said.
Mr. Polk earned a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Wesley Seminary in Washington while serving as pastor of his church in Bowie. He was ordained a deacon in 1965 and two years later, a Methodist minister.
During his time at Bowie United Methodist Church, he oversaw the merger of its white congregation with an African-American congregation.
He also served as a campus minister at what was then Bowie State College, where he organized Sunday afternoon services that highlighted some of the best gospel choirs in Maryland.
Mr. Polk served as a member of a panel that oversaw the desegregation of Prince George's public schools, which resulted in court-ordered busing that began in 1973.
"For his efforts, he was shot in the face with a BB gun, and another time, someone threw a rock through the window of the parsonage, narrowly missing his wife and children," recalled Ms. Siegel.
He ran twice unsuccessfully against a segregationist candidate for the Bowie City Council, losing the first time by 11 votes. With busing permeating the political atmosphere, he ran a second time, and again lost.
"He was very interested in social justice before it became fashionable," said Mr. Brannan.
From 1973 to 1980, he served as pastor of Greenmount United Methodist Church in Hampstead, then was assigned to Bethesda United Methodist Church on Harford Road, where he established a Brown Bag Sunday program to collect food for a local food bank.
"His sermons were always helpful and down-to-earth. He helped people lead a Christian life," said Mr. Brannan.
After retiring in 1991, he became a part-time pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Homeland.
"I was senior pastor and Bill came to me to work with me as visiting pastor, and the time he put in never reflected his compensation. He gave of his time unflinchingly," said Mr. Brannan. "He visited the sick, shut-ins and those in retirement communities."
His pastoral strength was bringing his warmth and ability to connect with church members who were sick, struggling with a personal crisis or grieving the death of a loved one, family members said.
"He was a great person to have around when there was a crisis," said Ms. Siegel.
Mr. Polk had honed his skills in reaching out to people from all walks of life and backgrounds and helping them deal with their problems during his Navy days.
He attended all church committee meetings. "He wanted to be supportive of the staff and the people he was working with. And when he was visiting members, he wanted to be able to report what happened in a committee meeting," said Mr. Brannan. "Bill also had a Navy story for everything, and used Navy terms like, 'I'll fly wing for you.' "
Family members joked that Mr. Polk was only working 40 hours a week after he took the part-time position at Grace United Methodist Church. He retired in 2004.
The longtime Parkville resident moved in 2009 to the Pickersgill retirement community in West Towson.
"He loved working and volunteered at the church. He'd do whatever needed to be done, whether it was setting up chairs or arranging a meeting," said Ms. Siegel.
"He was a great admirer of music and our music program at Grace," said Mr. Brannan. He just loved that."
Mr. Polk enjoyed reading and acquired a large library.
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Polk is survived by his wife of 60 years, the former Carol Jeanne Blegen; a son, William Timothy Polk of Bethesda; another daughter, Catrina Diem of White Hall; two brothers, Donald Polk of Annandale, Va., and Robert Polk of Freemont, N.H.; and nine grandchildren.