Eugene Feinblatt, 78, key city figure, dies Adviser to mayors played major role in Baltimore revival

July 17, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Eugene M. Feinblatt -- one of the legal architects of modern Baltimore who described himself as "part of a dying breed known as a generalist" -- died of heart failure Wednesday at the North Charles Street home where he had lived since suffering a )) stroke several years ago. He was 78.

"My father had an enormous intellect that combined a very analytical mind with a very practical mind," said John Feinblatt of New York. "He also had an extraordinarily open mind that embraced people for all their differences. This made him very successful as a lawyer and an adviser to politicians."

Mr. Feinblatt -- a founding partner of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander -- counseled Baltimore mayors from Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. in the early 1950s through William Donald Schaefer, whose tenure ended in 1987.

Along the way, he drafted legislation that created the city's Urban Renewal and Housing Commission. He later headed that agency, which developed Charles Center, the Inner Harbor and subsidized housing for the poor. His faith in the city's turnaround was demonstrated in the late 1970s, when he became one of the original Federal Hill homesteaders, living there until his stroke.

He taught law at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health and the University of Maryland; negotiated the sale of City Hospitals to Johns Hopkins Hospital; was special counsel to the Maryland Stadium Authority during the building of Oriole Park at Camden Yards; and was a behind-the-scenes pilot of state health care reform when Mr. Schaefer was governor.

"He was an outside lawyer that a politician would go to because of his brilliance, and a very nice man besides," said Mr. Schaefer, who joined Mr. Feinblatt's firm after leaving the State House in early 1995. "Every once in a while, his firm would be employed by the city or state on special matters, but most of it was pro bono. For me, he did everything for free."

Born in New York City in 1919, the son of a social worker and a schoolteacher, Mr. Feinblatt arrived in Baltimore at the beginning of the Great Depression, when his father was named director of the Levindale home for the elderly near Pimlico.

Around the family dinner table, young Gene -- with no clue that he would someday be a lawyer -- developed his zest for social issues.

"My interest in social issues probably comes from those days," he said in a 1988 profile. "They were a topic of conversation around the house, and I guess I absorbed it all by osmosis."

The president of his senior class at Forest Park High School -- later Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was a classmate -- Mr. Feinblatt earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. Of his enrollment in the university's law school in 1940, he said, "I had no idea what a lawyer did."

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army while awaiting a commission from the Navy. He eventually became an ensign aboard a 110-foot, wooden-hulled submarine chaser commanded by the future beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Over the years, the friend of Jack Kerouac and the confidant of Mr. Schaefer kept in sporadic touch by mail.

After his discharge, Mr. Feinblatt studied finance and labor law at Harvard and returned to Baltimore in 1947 in search of a law firm. The first two where he was interviewed turned him down because he was Jewish. A Jewish attorney turned him down because Mr. Feinblatt didn't know enough people on the street as they walked downtown.

Simon E. Sobeloff, later a U.S. solicitor general and federal judge, hired him as a protege and introduced him to politics Baltimore-style through Little Italy's Tommy D'Alesandro. When Mr. Sobeloff, a labor adviser to Mr. D'Alesandro, moved to Washington in the early 1950s, he left Mr. Feinblatt to carry on.

"It was like being drafted into the big leagues right out of high school," Mr. Feinblatt recalled.

Walter Sondheim, a senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee and a longtime friend, worked on downtown development issues with Mr. Feinblatt from the late 1950s.

"He wrote the ordinances that put the urban renewal agency together -- in that sense he helped form the basis for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor," Mr. Sondheim said. "He felt strongly about his public role but as a citizen, not as an employee of government. And his conclusions were carefully worked out."

Perhaps Mr. Feinblatt's last great achievement was in the field of health care. As chairman of the Maryland Hospital Association, he wrote the law creating Maryland's Health Services Cost Review Commission and in 1988 was tapped to chair the Governor's Commission on Health Care.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, credits Mr. Feinblatt with helping him craft health care reform during the Schaefer administration. Those laws -- copied by other states -- helped to lower health care costs in Maryland from above the national average to below it.

"We're still ahead of the curve, thanks to Gene Feinblatt," Mr. Taylor said. "He had that quiet confidence of anyone who knows his superiority, but he also had the beauty of humility."

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore.

Survivors include his wife, the former Lois Hoffberger, whom he married in 1983; a second son, Eric Feinblatt, also of New York; three stepchildren, Larry Blum of Cambridge, Mass., Jeff Blum of Bethesda and Patty Blum of Oakland, Calif.; and 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Mr. Feinblatt's marriage to the former Marjorie White ended in divorce in the late 1970s.

Donations may be made to the Eugene M. Feinblatt Family Stroke Project, c/o Cynthia Steele, the Neuropsychiatry and Memory Group, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Osler 320, 600 N. Wolfe Baltimore 21287.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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