An anachronism - and Singularly effective

PETER A. JAY

April 25, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Old Bay Farm, this past Tuesday, could hardly have looked lovelier. The unpretentious old house was open to the southerly spring breeze, which out on the Susquehanna Flats was kicking up a chop. The grass was freshly cut, the forsythia yellow.

Bill James had loved and labored over this place, his home for his entire adult life and a good part of his childhood. He would have been pleased that it looked so fine for the assemblage of old friends who came to visit on the day of his funeral.

It was quite a turnout. In fact, the death of William S. James of Old Bay Farm produced more political horsepower, past and present, than had been collected in Havre de Grace since Sen. Millard Tydings was buried here in February 1961.

But though there are rough parallels to be drawn between the lives and careers of Bill James and Millard Tydings, who lived three farms farther down the Chesapeake shoreline, such comparisons tend to be misleading. These were two very different people, and very different politicians.

Mr. Tydings, U.S. senator and a national figure, was a natural patrician, not by birth but by instinct and eventually by behavior. He had personal elegance, and elegant tastes. Mr. James, a state senator whose 40-year political career as legislator and state treasurer unfolded in Annapolis and not in Washington, lived a resolutely plain life and had little use for riches or affectation.

Former Gov. Harry Hughes, majority leader of the Maryland Senate during six of the 12 years Mr. James served as its president, spoke in remembrance of his friend and colleague at the funeral services on Tuesday. In a few minutes, with a handful of anecdotes, he sketched a clear picture of an unusual man.

Mr. James had no use for Annapolis night life, political perks or those useful little contacts that other lawyer-legislators use to build a bigger legal practice. He bought his own baseball tickets and drove his own car home to Old Bay Farm after work. He was an anachronism, no doubt -- but a singularly effective legislator all the same.

"He made a difference," said Mr. Hughes, "and I think that was all he wanted to do."

At the funeral services at St. John's Episcopal Church were plenty of state employees and elected officials from a couple of generations, but most in evidence were present and former members of the Maryland Senate. Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, who preceded Mr. James as Senate president, was there; so were James Clark Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Melvin A. Steinberg, who were among his successors, and Mike Miller, who presides now.

Former Sens. James Pine and Roy Staten from Baltimore County were there; so were Sens. Julian Lapides and Charles Smelser, who have seen the Senate go through plenty of changes since the James years and aren't sure they're happy about all of them. U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes was there, and former U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, to no one's great surprise, didn't make it.

Mr. Schaefer didn't like Mr. James, and blocked him from winning a fourth term as state treasurer in 1987. The reason for the governor's hostility was never absolutely clear, but there was probably nothing more to it than his well-known preference for surrounding himself with yes-persons. Bill James was a believer in political consensus and a willing compromiser, but a yes-man he wasn't.

He could tolerate the lack of candor that often goes with politics, but he didn't care for it. I recall him saying of one prevaricating legislator years ago that "that boy would rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth."

In his last years, which were vigorous ones until he fell seriously ill last fall, Mr. James kept busy at home and in touch with matters at the state level that interested him. He gave politics one final fling, running for the state Senate again in 1990 against former Harford County Executive Habern Freeman, but when he lost his first election in 48 years in the Democratic primary he didn't seem to mind too much. He'd given it his best shot.

He updated a short memoir on growing up in Havre de Grace and watched with some amusement as the town's tradition of wacky and free-swinging politics continued energetically into the modern era.

In his memoir, he cites a lawyer inveighing before a jury against "the city of Havre de Grace, where crime is a pastime and wickedness a fascination." That colorful municipal reputation was a topic he often brought up, though he usually declared it undeserved. He liked to say that when he first became engaged to Margaret Higinbothom of Bel Air, her family was worried whether Havre de Grace would be safe for her.

It turned out to be quite safe. Bill and Margaret raised two children in Havre de Grace, and this year his daughter Mary-Dulany presented him with his first grandchild -- one of the last rewards of a focused and fruitful life.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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