Victor Crawford, crusader against smoking, dies at 63 Cancer victim once was tobacco lobbyist

March 04, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Victor L. Crawford, a debonair former Maryland legislator who achieved national prominence in recent years for his conversion from tobacco lobbyist to anti-smoking crusader, died Saturday night at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 63.

Mr. Crawford, a resident of Chevy Chase, was an accomplished trial lawyer who represented eastern Montgomery County in the General Assembly for 16 years. It was there that he earned the nickname of "the Riverboat Gambler" because of his pinky ring, vest, gold watch -- and cigars.

His smoking -- 2 1/2 packs of cigarettes at first, then cigars and pipes -- led to the passion of the final two years of his life, as an outspoken foe of smoking. While battling cancer, he lobbied state legislatures, gave interviews and spoke out on the dangers of tobacco and the industry on whose behalf he had worked.

"It's too late for me, but it's not too late for you," Mr. Crawford said during one of President Clinton's weekly nationwide radio addresses last summer. "I smoked heavily, and I started when I was 13 years old. And now, in my throat and in my lungs, where the smoke used to be, there is a cancer that I know is killing me. Use your brain. Don't let anybody fool you. Don't smoke."

After retiring from the Senate, Mr. Crawford had worked for the Tobacco Institute for six years, lobbying his former legislative colleagues to kill or weaken smoking restrictions. Then, in 1991, he was diagnosed with cancer. He went public with his disease and his appeal to stop smoking in 1994, appearing at a hearing in Annapolis on proposed regulations to limit smoking in the workplace.

"He didn't mince words, and he didn't spare himself," recalled former state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Montgomery County Republican who was a close friend. "He didn't blame anyone but himself for his problems. All he wanted to do was teach others to avoid the mistakes he had made."

Mr. Crawford later went nationwide with his message, appearing on the CBS newsmagazine show, "60 Minutes" and writing to syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers, among others. He lobbied on behalf of anti-smoking legislation in Florida and campaigned to block a smokers' rights referendum in California, said his wife of 14 years, Linda.

"He made a difference," said Mr. Denis. "This was one of the things that kept him going in the last five years. He knew he was influencing young lives."

"He worked until the day he went into the hospital," Mrs. Crawford said. She said she drove him to Hopkins on Feb. 2 only after he had appeared in court. "He went fighting," she added.

Mr. Crawford was born in Richmond, Va., but grew up in New York City and Washington, D.C. He was a graduate of Georgetown University Law School.

He was elected to the House of Delegates as a Democrat in 1966, then appointed to the state Senate in 1969 to fill the term of Blair Lee III, who had been appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel.

One of the legislative accomplishments of which Mr. Crawford was proudest, said Mr. Denis, was creation of the Distinguished Scholar Program, which provided financial aid to academically talented but needy students to attend college or graduate school in Maryland.

Mr. Crawford's legal career spanned 30 years and he represented a black Montgomery County man in 1962 accused of raping a white teen-ager in a case that drew civil rights protests and national attention.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. March 11 in the chapel at the University of Maryland College Park campus.

Other survivors include a daughter, Charlene; and a son, Victor Jr., both of Berwyn Heights.

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