James Kirkman, 82, Bethlehem Steel executive

November 01, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

James Walter Kirkman, who used his detailed knowledge of ships to serve 35 years as assistant to the general manager of Bethlehem Steel Corp's Sparrows Point Shipyard, died Oct. 24 of complications from emphysema at Glen Meadows Retirement Community in Glen Arm. He was 82 and formerly of Cedarcroft.

Born and raised in Halethorpe, Mr. Kirkman's knowledge of ships began as a 10-year old when he sailed Chesapeake Bay.

He was a 1933 graduate of Polytechnic Institute and earned bachelor's degrees in naval architecture and mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1937.

He began his career in the drafting department of the shipyard under the eye of John Macy Willis, the yard's general manager who was often referred to as the "world's greatest shipbuilder."

Mr. Kirkman "was fascinated by ships, and they were his whole life," a son, John Kirkman of Aberdeen, S.D., said.

With the coming of World War II, Mr. Kirkman assumed responsibility for managing the yard's shipbuilding program at Sparrows Point and Fairfield shipyard, where Liberty and Victory ships were built.

Six hundred oceangoing ships, more ships than were built in any other yard in the world during World War II, slipped into the Patapsco River from the yard's ways.

Despite a slight tendency toward gruffness and a slightly stern exterior, he was well-liked and respected by other managers and shipyard workers.

Mr. Kirkman, called Tom, expected the same hard work and dedication from his workers as he expected from himself.

"Those ships were his babies from the design stage to the owner's trials and if he had to rivet or weld a plate, he knew he could do it, and so did they," his son said.

After the war, the yard turned to building tankers for Sinclair, Gulf Oil and Texaco as well as ore carriers for Bethlehem Steel.

Mr. Kirkman was also in charge of all ship launchings and launch parties.

"They were always a big deal for him," said the son. He said his father never got over the thrill of seeing a new ship's hull dripping champagne greet the waters.

"Pop always said with great pride that,'Beth ships were the best built ships in the world,' and he was really saddened by what had happened to the industry in recent years."

Mr. Kirkman was a member of the Society of Naval Architects. He was a member of the Potapskut Sailing Association and, after retiring, sailed his "Lively Lady."

He also carved and finished half-hull models of sailing vessels for friends and family members.

Mr. Kirkman was married for 59 years to the former Jean Norton, who died last year.

He was a member of Towson Presbyterian Church where a memorial service was held Wednesday.

In addition to his son, he is survived by another son, Tom Kirkman of N. Falmouth, Mass.; a daughter, Sally Stevenson of Hereford; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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