Oakenshawe man's death in attack ruled homicide

May 18, 1994|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

The state medical examiner yesterday ruled that a 77-year-old retired Johns Hopkins University professor was a homicide victim, the target of a robbery and assault Saturday night on the porch of his Oakenshawe rowhouse, Baltimore police said.

Professor emeritus William H. McClain, who taught German at Hopkins for nearly 30 years, had just returned from a performance of the Washington Ballet with a friend when a man confronted them outside the front door of Dr. McClain's house in the 3400 block of Oakenshaw Place, police said.

Dr. McClain -- whose teachings focused on post-Romantic German literature themes of death, love and social problems -- was punched in the face and fell backward, hitting his head on the concrete floor of the porch, police said.

Police said his watch, valued at $150, and a wallet belonging to Mr. McClain's 74-year-old friend were taken by the robber.

As a result of complications from his head wound, Dr. McClain died about 6:30 p.m. Monday at Union Memorial Hospital.

His death was ruled a homicide because he died from injuries suffered during the commission of a felony, police said.

"I hope they find the man who did this to him, and I hope he pays," said Dr. McClain's niece, Dawn Basom, who came to Baltimore from her hometown of Cleveland to handle funeral arrangements.

"To think that someone could take the life of an amazing man who was so healthy, and so trusting. He was not afraid of a soul," Ms. Basom said. "Our family is just devastated."

The Oakenshawe neighborhood, an enclave of well-kept rowhouses and gardens a few blocks from Hopkins' Homewood campus, is home to several Hopkins professors and doctors. Crime is a rarity there -- in the 37 years that Dr. McClain lived in the neighborhood, he had never been a crime victim, his family said.

Throughout those years, Dr. McClain relied mainly on his feet for transportation. He never had a driver's license -- "he tried driving when he was younger and just didn't like it," his niece said -- and he walked to classes, restaurants and food markets near the neighborhood he loved.

Former students and colleagues, many of whom he inspired decades ago to major in German literature, were hit hard by his death. He taught at Hopkins from 1953 to 1982 and was chairman of the German department for 10 years.

"Bill was one of the most dedicated, most gentle of men I ever met in my life," said Lieselotte Kurth, a retired Hopkins German professor and former student of Dr. McClain's. "Because of the inspiring way that he taught German -- he was always getting large crowds of students in his classes -- I decided 40 years ago to switch my major from chemistry to German."

Focusing on the post-Romantic German period, Dr. McClain's expertise was in poetic realism and such writers as Schiller, Goethe and Ludwig, Dr. Kurth said. He provided poignant insights into German literature, often comparing the works to French writings, she said.

Dr. McClain befriended students easily and served as an adviser to Hopkins students until his death, Dr. Kurth said. "Many of them would stay in contact with him for years and years. They'll be very sad to hear of his death," she said.

Dr. David Wellbery, chairman of the German Department, said Dr. McClain served as an adviser to Rhodes scholars, pre-law students and the Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

"Students from all over the country still remember him as being one of their stellar teachers at Hopkins," he said.

A native of Cleveland, Dr. McClain developed an interest in German in his college years -- during the height of World War II -- at Case-Western Reserve University and the University of Wisconsin, his family said.

He was in Europe during the war as an employee of the U.S. State Department. After the conflict, he taught German to U.S. servicemen stationed in Germany during the occupation, his family said.

Despite seeing the ravages of war, Dr. McClain kept an optimistic view of life -- which makes it especially hard for friends and family to understand his death at the hands of a mugger in his affluent neighborhood.

"He always believed in the goodness of other people. It was his attitude toward society," Dr. Kurth said. "It's very sad what's happened. He was robbed of perhaps $150 worth of jewelry and he had to die for it. It's totally out of proportion."

Betty Coulson, who has lived in Oakenshawe for about 30 years and is past president of the neighborhood garden club, called the retired professor's death "very distressing. He was such a peace-loving gentleman."

"Oakenshawe is a quiet, peaceful residential neighborhood," she said. "It's an oasis in Baltimore City. I certainly don't feel afraid to go out of my house. Crime has been at the minimum around here."

A memorial service for Dr. McClain will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the Garrett Room of the Eisenhower Library on the Homewood campus. The service is open to the public.

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