Rev. Myer F. M. Tobey, who ministered to Maryland's prison inmates, dies

December 25, 1990|By Jonathan Bor

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Washington for the Rev. Myer F. M. Tobey, S.J., a Jesuit priest rarely seen in clerical garb and who spent much of his life fighting for the dignity of Maryland's prison inmates.

A gentle man who was drawn to some of society's least popular citizens, Father Tobey served as Maryland Penitentiary chaplain for 11 years before leaving the Pen in the mid-1960s to co-found and direct Dismas House, the state's first halfway house for just-released prison inmates.

He died Friday night at his apartment on LaPlata Avenue in Baltimore, where he had lived for the past two years after returning from Israel.

He was 75.

In Jerusalem, he had spent a few years studying the roots of religion at the Rothberg School in hopes of dedicating the rest of his life to bringing Christians, Jews and adherents of other faiths closer together.

Yesterday, friends remembered him as a compassionate man who could see the possibility of good in people who had committed terrible crimes and had no other advocates.

"He was always fighting for the underdog. There was nobody, no matter what they did, whom Myer Tobey couldn't find some good in," said Shirley Polikoff, a longtime friend and one of Dismas House's co-founders. "I never saw him reject anybody."

"He really cared most for people this society really abandoned and condemned -- the chronically mentally ill and prisoners," said E. Clinton Bamberger, a Baltimore lawyer who knew him for many years. "He was a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. He was a good Christian and he was a good Jew in the Biblical sense -- justice."

Father Tobey was born a Jew in Boston on May 16, 1915, the son of Daniel and Hanna Tobey. He was a graduate of the Boston Latin School and Boston College.

After graduate studies at Notre Dame University, he converted to Catholicism and was baptized a Catholic in 1939.

He entered the Jesuit order in 1943 and went on to study philosophy at the Weston School of Theology in Weston, Mass.

He taught economics and sociology at Loyola College in Baltimore during the 1948-1949 academic year and studied theology at Woodstock College in Woodstock, Md., from 1950 to 1954.

Upon completing his theological studies, he was ordained a priest in June 1953.

Father Tobey became a well-known champion of the underdog during his 11 years as prison chaplain, a stint that began in 1956. At the Pen, he befriended many inmates and counseled them about their struggles with alcoholism, drug abuse and the personal problems that led to their criminality.

He accompanied several inmates on their way to the gas chamber -- a job he called his "most repulsive duty," because of the horror he saw in the prisoners' eyes as they approached death and because of the tragedy he considered capital punishment to be.

Almost yearly, he appeared before the Maryland General Assembly to ask lawmakers to ban the death penalty. In a 1983 visit, he told ofone condemned inmate who was stripped to his shorts and strapped to a chair and then asphyxiated with cyanide gas.

"I shall never forget the look on that man's face -- stark terror," he said. "And there was something more. He looked at me with a look not only of stark terror, but of disbelief. And it overwhelmed me with a feeling of disbelief, how we could do this. No matter what he did, we were doing it more calculatingly, more deliberately . . . than he ever did."

His advocacy of prisoners' rights often drew the anger of guards and prison authorities, according to Mr. Bamberger. "If they [inmates] told him something that was done wrong to them, he'd go to the administration -- and if that didn't work, he'd go to the public with it," Mr. Bamberger recalled.

Father Tobey said he left the prison ministry to run Dismas House -- named for the "good thief" who died on a cross beside Christ -- after he watched many released inmates commit crimes and return to prison because they were unprepared for life in the outside world.

"After 11 years, I became frustrated at seeing the same fellows coming back again," he once said. "As individuals in society, we have an obligation to do this. What we need is an enlightened citizenry, a society willing to help the large segment of offenders who want help."

Father Tobey, who later established a second halfway house in East Baltimore, is remembered as a rotund man wearing an open-neck sports shirt who had the rare ability to identify with the plight of society's castoffs.

"He really wasn't so much for causes as for relating to people," said Marvin Polikoff, another longtime friend.

His friends said he rarely preached during the time he worked at the penitentiary and at Dismas House. But occasionally, he was moved to deliver sermons at local churches when he needed more funds for the house.

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