Gilbert Byron dies at 87 wrote bay novels, poetry

June 27, 1991|By Liz Bowie Tim Warren, book editor of The Sun, contributed to this article.

Gilbert Valliant Byron, who wrote about the Chesapeake Bay for nearly half a century from a simple cabin he built on a cove in the woods near St. Michaels, died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at age 87, still hoping to publish a fourth novel.

The Eastern Shoreman, whose life appeared styled after Henry David Thoreau, became one of the bay's most prolific and well-known authors. He wrote 11 published books, including seven books of poetry and three novels. His best-known book was "The Lord's Oysters" and his most recent novel, "Done Crabbin'," was published in 1990 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

A small, strong man who mostly wore turtleneck shirts and a watch cap, Mr. Byron could be found most days in a cluttered, tiny cabin on the water writing simple poetry or letters. His writing centered around the life of the bay.

A secondary public school teacher for many years, in the past decade he spent hours traveling across the state to read his poetry to schoolchildren.

Tom Wisner, who writes and sings songs about the bay, recalls spending time with Mr. Byron in the classroom. "He was incredible with children, even in his 80s -- incredibly effective. There was a genuine quality in his being and presence," Mr. Wisner said.

As Gilbert Byron aged, his eyesight failed. He would peer out over his text at the classroom, unable to see the students raising their hands. He would turn to Mr. Wisner and say, "Tom, call on somebody."

Blindness didn't stop his writing either. Jacques T. Baker Jr., a student of his who became a close friend years later, would transcribe his writing from tape recordings Mr. Byron made in the past year while living in the Meridian Nursing Center in Easton.

"He was very true to his craft of writing," Mr. Baker said, even living in near poverty for several decades so that he could write full time.

"What came to impress me the most about Gilbert was his drive to keep writing," said author Tom Horton. "In the healthiest sense, Gilbert had a tremendous ego. Even in his 80s, he thought he had a lot to say about the bay and no one could say it better. . . . I found that inspirational."

Whether he was a first-rate poet may have been debated, Mr. Horton said, but no one wrote better poetry about the loons, the marshes or the bay.

Born in Chestertown in 1903 on Thoreau's birthday, July 12, he was the son of a waterman and a seamstress. He graduated from Washington College in 1923 with a bachelor's degree in history and political science.

He began his teaching career in the Kennedyville School in Kent County in 1923, one of two teachers. He continued to teach until 1946, when he separated from his wife, Edna Byron, moved from Dover, Del., and built a house on a cove near St. Michaels with no electricity, no heat and no running water for $133.17. There, he wrote "The Lord's Oysters," Mr. Baker said.

The book was finished but not accepted for publication, and he was forced to go back to teaching in Easton and St. Michaels high schools. Finally, the book was published in 1957 and he went back to writing full time.

An eccentric, generous man, he often interjected lines of verse in conversation. "He expressed himself simply but beautifully. He was very honest about his thoughts with himself, his writing and other people," said Arlene W. Sullivan, assistant to the director of Johns Hopkins Press.

He has no surviving family. As was his wish, Mr. Byron's ashes will be mixed with the ashes of his dog, Happy, and strewn over the cove in front of the little house he lived in until June 1990, when he moved to a nursing home. Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

The Chesapeake College library has begun a collection of Gilbert Byron's manuscripts and letters.

As illness weakened him, Mr. Byron "didn't like to talk about his

death," Mr. Wisner said. "His feeling was that once he was gone, he knew that he wouldn't be writing anymore, and he didn't like that."

Byron's 'Chesapeake Marshes'

Here is a beauty few will understand,

Few hearts will leap at sight of languid streams

That course through sluggish inlets to the land;

Few alien ears will hear the wild bird screams

And think them lovely, pleasant, gentle sounds.

The endless marsh grass here, inherits all,

And mud pocked roads lead but to wind torn towns,

Storm swept and drenched by unrelenting squall.

Above, the vast remoteness of the sky

Proves this a world where loneliness is king;

No sound is heard except the black duck's cry, --

A piercing haunting wild but timely thing.

This is a world apart, untamed and bleak.

These lonely marshes of the Chesapeake.

Gilbert Valliant Byron,


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