Henry C. Engel Jr., who made legal history 27 years ago when he was appointed Harford's first public defender, is retiring at the end of September to "make room for new blood."
Mr. Engel, 61, who also was the first public defender in Maryland, was sworn in on July 1, 1966, after the General Assembly created the position to provide legal counsel for the poor. The bill was introduced by the late Del. C. Stanley Blair, a Harford Republican.
The Harford County system served as a model for both Frederick and Montgomery counties, and in 1971, five years after the office was created, Maryland developed a statewide system.
Mr. Engel is the last of 12 original appointees still in office.
Seated at a cluttered desk in a cramped second-floor room in the Mary Risteau Building on Bond Street in Bel Air, looking slightly disorganized and a little bit like Santa Claus, as one of his colleagues described him, Mr. Engel said, "It's time for a change."
"Everything has sort of fallen into place, I've done all I can do and I'm getting old. I think it's time to make room for new blood," he says in a gravelly voice, removing his eyeglasses and wiping a hand across his tired eyes.
He said he's seen a lot of change in the post he pioneered 27 years ago. For example, he started at a salary of $5,000. Attorneys in the office now make $35,000 to $54,000 a year.
Mr. Engel said the caseload has increased tremendously over the years. The public defenders each now handle more than 500 cases a year, compared to the 50 to 60 a year he handled when he was the lone attorney.
In addition, laws have expanded the types of cases assigned to the public defender's office to include less serious crimes, such as civil contempt suits, he said.
Before the office was created, about 10 attorneys in the county represented defendants on a rotating basis. This system became outdated due to increased caseloads and waning interest.
Mr. Engel's co-workers describe him as a kind, dedicated, personable man and affectionately refer to him only as Henry.
"I've got a lot of respect for Henry," said Assistant Public Defender Francis Henninger. "He's a good role model who cares about his clients, us and the community. He takes an interest in me as a person and not just as an attorney, and that's something I'll miss."
Lloyd Merriam, acting district public defender in Harford, said when he joined the county office seven years ago he had no intention of staying. But that was before he got to know Mr. Engel.
"Henry seduced me," Mr. Merriam said. "He was a very kindly boss and fostered a personal, friendly working environment and that's what kept me here."
He said Mr. Engel's honesty and compassion are "refreshing. In this business, it's very easy to become cynical, but Henry has never lost faith in the basic goodness of people."
Mr. Engel, who was a juvenile court master before he became a public defender, has been known to take children deemed hopeless by the legal system into his home.
"When kids are rejected by the system, he leaps into the breach and provides them with a place to live, love and guidance," Mr. Merriam said.
Mr. Engel said that he took in one child, a girl, because he "just didn't think it was fair to send her to an institution."
She still calls him every Sunday, "usually collect," he said.
Mr. Engel said he loves working closely with people to make positive changes in their lives, and that is what he will miss most when he retires. That concern kept him rooted in the Public Defender's Office despite at least two offers to become a judge, he said.
Mr. Engel was graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., 1953. After spending a year in law school there, he transferred to the University of Maryland School of Law and was graduated in 1956. He began a private practice in Bel Air in 1958.
When he retires, Mr. Engel, who lives in Bel Air with Ethel, his wife of 39 years, said he plans to spend more time visiting with his four adult children and his 9-year-old granddaughter, Annie.
"For a little while at least, I'm just going to concentrate on getting up each morning and asking myself what I want to do, instead of what I have to do," he said.