William Wilson, dean of lobbyists, ex-lawmaker and spinner of many a yarn

November 18, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

William Smith Wilson Jr., dean of the State House corps of lobbyists and a former legislator whose own political rise and fall were closely tied to a lobbyist's influence, died Friday of congestive heart failure at his longtime Dulaney Valley home.

Mr. Wilson, 88, was the founder and lifelong chairman of the Legislative Conference -- a group of about two dozen lobbyists that met weekly at the Valley Inn in Brooklandville to talk business and spin yarns.

His clients over the years included Baltimore's Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

And when a reform-minded General Assembly took up bills in the mid-1970s to require disclosure about lobbyists' spending, it was Mr. Wilson who represented his peers in opposition to the proposal. He was, after all, the lobbyists' lobbyist as well.

Born in Easton, Mr. Wilson moved to Baltimore with his family as a 3-year-old. He was a 1924 graduate of City College, and three years later received his law degree from the University of Maryland -- supporting himself along the way by selling tobacco.

He entered law practice in 1928, and became active in politics in Northeast Baltimore's old 3rd Legislative District. Mr. Wilson was chairman of the Belair Road Democratic Club's board of governors when he first ran for -- and won -- political office as a member of the House of Delegates in 1934.

Mr. Wilson was backed by a powerful lobbyist and political boss, George N. Lewis, who pushed for the interests of Baltimore saloonkeepers in Annapolis. Accordingly, Mr. Wilson was a supporter of Lewis-backed legislation that would have given the saloonkeepers a monopoly on the dispensing of draft beer in Baltimore.

He also was backed by the political boss in winning -- as a first-term delegate and one of Maryland's youngest legislators -- the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Wilson ran afoul of his strong backer, however, by changing sides in the continuing beer-tap battle. And in a bitter 1938 contest, he lost a primary election fight for the district's Senate seat.

With that as a personal background, Mr. Wilson went on to become one of Maryland's top lobbyists. In his unsuccessful mid-1970s efforts against passage of lobbyist-disclosure laws, he made a spritely appearance before the House Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law in defense of the profession.

On the need for detailed accountings of money spent by lobbyists to wine and dine legislators, the white-haired Mr. Wilson said, "I don't think any of you can be bought for a few drinks and a couple of meals."

In a 1988 interview, he said lobbying "is a perfectly decent way to make a living if you act decently."

He added, "I don't indulge in hanging around beer joints," and called the then-current wining and dining of legislators "outrageous," but then spoke of a much earlier day. "The bankers were the worst. I mean they used to take people to Hawaii."

Mr. Wilson was married in 1925 to the former May A. Grubert -- who became known as an artist under the name May Wilson -- and was separated from her when she died in 1986.

Mr. Wilson was nearly 81 when he married the former Jeanette Heath, and told friends in the lobbyists' conference that he first asked permission from her father -- still living and in his 90s, according to William F. Zorzi Sr., the group's presiding officer. Lobbyist James J. Doyle Jr. demanded to know the bride's father's reply, and -- by Mr. Zorzi's account -- Mr. Wilson told them "he said no."

"I asked the final question," Mr. Zorzi recalled: "'Because you were a lobbyist?' And he said, "Yeah."

But Mr. Zorzi added that he had asked Mrs. Wilson about that tale Monday, and "she said he made it up -- that it wasn't true. Her parents were so fond of him that they insisted they get married."

"He was a guy of many talents, and one of them was he memorized everything," Mr. Zorzi noted, recalling how Mr. Wilson would recite from memory George Washington's farewell address at the conference meeting on the Monday closest to the first president's birthday "as we ate our cherry pie."

"We never had dessert normally, but we always did on Washington's Birthday to hear Bill. It was all part of the ceremony. One year when we told him we were tired of it -- some us had begun to memorize it -- he --ed off the Preamble to the Constitution as a substitute."

Mr. Wilson was an avid reader and enjoyed gardening -- particularly tending his roses -- and raising sheep on his 10-acre farm property, which was named Freedom Hill and overlooks Dulaney Valley.

Surviving, in addition to Mr. Wilson's wife, are a daughter, Betty Jane Butler of Manteo, N.C.; a son, William S. Wilson III of New York City; a sister, Jane D.W. Nelson of Oxford; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A graveside service was held Monday at Spring Hill Cemetery in Easton where Mr. Wilson represented the fourth generation buried in his family's plot.

The family suggested memorial donations to Stella Maris Hospice, 2300 Dulaney Valley Road, or the Academy of the Arts, P.O. Box 605, Easton 21601.

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