Helen Delich Bentley, as newspaper reporter, federal official and congresswoman, has always kept her eye on the welfare of Baltimore's port.
Helen Delich Bentley, as newspaper reporter, federal official and congresswoman, has always kept her eye on the welfare of Baltimore's port. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Before she was a member of Congress or leading Maryland's Republican Party, before she was regarded as the godmother of Baltimore's port or served on the Federal Maritime Commission, Helen Delich Bentley was a maritime reporter and editor for this newspaper. And as her colleagues of that era will gladly testify, she was just as no-nonsense, irascible and verbally, uh, colorful as the Helen Delich Bentley we know today.

Ms. Bentley has long been acknowledged as a Maryland original who has devoted her life to public service and particularly to the welfare of that key economic asset known today as the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore (the renaming of the port a unique honor bestowed on her a decade ago). Some might regard her as the GOP counterpart to the late William Donald Schaefer (who frequently spoke admiringly of her and endorsed her unsuccessful 1994 bid for governor) because of her singular devotion to the state — and her willingness to work with members of the opposing party, a true rarity in this day and age.
First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984 — after two unsuccessful attempts to unseat incumbent Democrat Clarence Long — Ms. Bentley quickly established a reputation for supporting the blue-collar jobs of the merchant marine and U.S. manufacturing as well as for the dredging projects that kept Baltimore’s port competitive. She served five terms before passing the seat to a then-36-year-old lawyer from Arbutus named Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who would go on to become the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew. In that election, Ms. Bentley lost her party’s gubernatorial nomination to the more socially conservative Ellen Sauerbrey, who came within 6,000 votes of defeating Parris N. Glendening.
It has been a stunning professional and political career, making her a trailblazer for women, particularly in the male-dominated maritime industry. The 92-year-old Timonium resident still serves as a consultant to a port that’s thriving, in large part, because of her diligent work. But here’s the essential Helen Bentley story that’s still told in the newsroom: In 1969, while calling The Sun’s rewrite desk from the icebreaker SS Manhattan traversing the Northwest Passage, Ms. Bentley was caught using a profanity on the ship-to-shore radio, and it caused all radio privileges of onboard reporters to be suspended by the ship’s owner, the company claiming to be concerned about a possible violation of Federal Communications Commission law. She was, incidentally, the only woman on the ship at the time, and the incident, her last assignment for the newspaper, did not keep her from being confirmed to the Federal Maritime Commission weeks later.
Whether management was truly concerned about Ms. Bentley’s language or just wanted an excuse to keep reporters off the air is not clear. But what can’t be disputed is that The Sun’s intrepid maritime correspondent got the job done — and has continued to do so to the benefit of the port and Maryland’s maritime economy.