Herman Samuel Beck Jr., 78, newspaper columnist, historian

August 30, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Herman Samuel Beck Jr., author of a popular Mount Airy newspaper column and local historian, died Tuesday from complications of Parkinson's disease at his home there. He was 78.

Mr. Beck, who was known as "B," began writing "The Way We Were" for the now-defunct Mount Airy News in 1986. He continued writing the colorful column, which was a look back at national and local historical events, until 1995, when his health began to decline.

"He was a tremendous columnist who was the perfect union of writer and subject matter," said Dave Greenwalt yesterday, JTC former editor and publisher of the Mount Airy News.

"In 1986, we had space we needed to fill and I knew that he had written articles on Mount Airy during the Bicentennial in 1976. Also, I felt there would be an audience for retrospective articles and that people would enjoy reading about their town," said Mr. Greenwalt.

"We used to call them 'Main Street Mount Airy' columns, and by the time we had published his second column the reaction from our readers was such that I told him he had a lifetime contract."

At the time of his retirement, Mr. Greenwalt wrote, "Beck's columns were stories you could easily imagine your grandfather telling around the fireplace -- well-written, in an easily read style with the language and lingo of his generation."

His detailed and thorough research proved that the town was founded in 1894 rather than 1896, as appeared on the town's logo for years. He even rediscovered a long-forgotten second mayor of Mount Airy, Lycurgus Clary, who served one term from 1896 to 1898.

Mr. Beck's family roots went deep into Mount Airy's past. His father was the town's first fire chief.

Growing up there, he was fascinated by the whistles and drama of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway Co. freight and passenger trains that steamed past his home.

It turned into a lifelong interest. As an adult, he collected American Flyer electric trains.

Years later, his nine-part series on the B & O and the origins of Mount Airy resulted in "The Mount Airy and B & O Story" being published as a book in 1990. Illustrated with vintage photographs, the book was an immediate success.

"He knew a lot of people in the town and spent his time going through their family records and photo albums," said a son, Clifton T. Beck of Mount Airy.

The clacking of his old Smith-Corona typewriter in his study, a room jammed with books, could be heard as he compiled his columns and records, said the son.

Mr. Beck was a 1936 graduate of Mount Airy High school and earned his bachelor's degree from Western Maryland College in 1940. During World War II, he served as a radioman with the Army Air Corps in the European theater of operations.

He was a budget officer with the U.S. Department of Commerce from 1946 until his retirement in 1981.

He was a former member of the Mount Airy Town Council, former president of the Mount Airy Lions club and co-founder of the Taylorsville Lions. He managed and coached in the Mount Airy Little League and Pony League.

He was a member of Prospect United Methodist Church, where services were held Friday.

He is survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Mary Jane Waltz; another son, Herman S. Beck III of Mount Airy; a daughter, Margaret Kershner of Mount Airy; two brothers, E. L. "Pat" Beck and Charles Beck, both of Mount Airy; a sister, Clara Harris of Fontana, Calif.; and six grandchildren.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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