John Clabaugh Leitch, 91, traveling brush salesman

May 24, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

John Clabaugh Leitch, a paintbrush salesman who traveled the world for pleasure carrying a tightly packed 21-pound suitcase, died of heart failure Thursday at St. Agnes HealthCare. He was 91 and lived in Ten Hills.

Mr. Leitch, known as Clay, was also the founder of an unusual downtown Baltimore social organization -- the Down Under Club -- which meets regularly at the Woman's Industrial Exchange tearoom on North Charles Street.

He began going to the Woman's Exchange in 1913 on his sixth birthday. His lunch, which rarely varied, was a cup of soup, half a ham sandwich, coffee and ice cream. His last lunch there was this year.

As a young man he began his life's work -- selling paintbrushes made by the old Calverton Road company of Samuel M. Dell Co. -- to hardware stores across the country. When the company folded about 20 years ago, he bought the name Dell Brush, expanded his line to include fine art and industrial brushes and continued making the rounds. He was calling on Midwest customers until about 10 weeks ago.

A colorful character who made friends easily, took their pictures and wrote them letters, Mr. Leitch traveled each year throughout Europe or Asia -- invariably setting his itineraries so he would be in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, on Sept. 16, his birthday. He was planning another trip when he died.

"He was indefatigable," said Anne K. vonSchwerdtner, a Down Under Club member and friend. "The club he founded was like a drugstore counter. We got to know each other and develop friendships."

Mr. Leitch was a born salesman who could talk to almost anyone. Despite encountering language differences in his travels, he struck up conversations and took pictures, thousands of them.

"He was amazing," said Sally McCann, his downtown Baltimore travel agent. "Very often the hotels he stayed in would pick up his bill. He endeared himself wherever he went."

Typically, he traveled alone and carried one, 21-pound bag packed with only the essentials, including drip-dry socks and shirts.

"His office walls from ceiling to floor were covered with pictures of castles, mountain scenes and his hundreds of friends," said his wife, the former Anne Haroldson, a former professional ice skater whom he married 47 years ago. "I let him do the traveling because I'd had enough of it as a skater."

His ability to make friends and conversation helped him start the Down Under Club on June 22, 1967, in what had been a separate lunch counter then favored by a mostly all-male clientele in the basement of the Woman's Exchange building.

"He had a phenomenal memory and could recall names, addresses, locations and telephone numbers of the hundreds of persons he'd met," said Herbert M. Witz, a Baltimore attorney who also lunched with him.

"He would occasionally complain about the food or the prices," said Woman's Exchange director Diane Coleman. "But I loved his stories. He was what the exchange is all about."

Several years ago -- when more men began eating in the exchange's main tea room -- the Down Under regulars moved upstairs, where they still meet.

Mr. Leitch, an avid gardener who took meticulous care of the grounds of his Ten Hills home, had a habit of tipping restaurant staff with seed packets he'd made up.

Born in Mount Washington, he was a graduate of Polytechnic Institute. He also took courses at Maryland Institute, College of Art. As a young man, he sang in the choir of Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Clabaugh Coleman of Toronto, Ohio, and a son, Richard Bixby Bush of Wilmington, Del.; and six grandchildren.

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