Capt. Howard C. Johnson, 88, member of Association of Maryland Pilots

May 25, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Capt. Howard C. Johnson, a veteran Chesapeake Bay pilot who spent 42 years guiding ships through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and from Baltimore to Cape Henry, Va., died Friday of heart failure at his Homeland residence. He was 88.

Captain Johnson, who was known as "Reds" because of his red hair, retired in 1972.

Until his death, he was the oldest living member of the Association of Maryland Pilots.

He developed his love of the sea and ships as a young boy growing up on William Street in Federal Hill, listening to their melodious whistles and watching them steam in and out of the harbor.

He spent his boyhood at Spedden Shipbuilding Co. in Canton, where his father was a naval architect and, after graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1930, he began his pilot apprenticeship, finishing in 1936.

"It was an obsession. He loved his ships and the bay more than anything," said a daughter, Zilla Johnson Clinton of Los Angeles. "His wonderful stories would fill a book and he talked and dreamt of his ships until he died."

An agreeable and unflappable individual who colleagues said was blessed with nerves of steel, Captain Johnson began his career before the days of radar and other technical advances that have made piloting a less hazardous occupation.

During his career, he braved high seas, thick fogs, hurricanes, ice and German U-boats that mined the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. He also piloted the battleship USS Missouri, now anchored in Pearl Harbor, on the ship's first postwar visit to the bay.

"One time because of a hurricane, he couldn't get off at Cape Henry and had to sail all the way to Venezuela, and on another voyage managed to cut [the trans-Atlantic telephone cable]," said Mrs. Clinton.

"Another time, while bringing a fully loaded tanker into Baltimore, the ship lost its engines. He always said that it took at least three miles for a ship to stop. He put out a call for every available tug in the harbor to come to his aid and he was able to get the ship under control and stopped before it hit the pier with disastrous results," Mrs. Clinton said.

"He had an extremely good reputation as a highly reputable pilot," said Capt. Brian H. Hope, a member of the Association of Maryland Pilots, which dates to 1852, and has the longest pilotage in the nation.

"He was a soft-spoken man who had steady nerves. It helps to have that," said Captain Hope, who lives in Ellicott City. "In a career that long, you can't pilot ships without having some harrowing experiences."

"He was a competent ship handler and dependable worker," said his nephew, retired Capt. Thomas D. Leizear of Monkton, a bay pilot for 49 years.

"When I was a young pilot, he taught me how to conduct myself on the bridge and how to treat the crew. He always stressed that they were to be treated with respect," said Captain Leizear.

While standing on darkened bridges and to help keep himself alert, Captain Johnson would memorize poetry.

"He was a lover of poetry, especially poems relating to the sea, and could quote the classics as well as doggerel verse until he died. He also learned to say in 37 languages, `Please bring some coffee to the bridge,' " said Mrs. Clinton, laughing.

Captain Johnson learned sailmaking, celestial navigation and Morse code while an apprentice and taught the latter two to his daughters.

"He was the family seamstress. We couldn't hold a needle so he hemmed my dresses and even made curtains," Mrs. Clinton said.

Captain Johnson's library was largely given over to maritime subjects. A gifted story teller, he entertained visitors with sea tales.

In retirement, he wintered at a home on Sanibel Island, Fla., and made several trans-Atlantic crossings and took cruises with his wife of 60 years, the former Zilla Newsom.

He was a member of the Baltimore Country Club and Masons Grand Lodge, A.F. & A.M. of Maryland, Lodge No. 108, and a founding parent of St. Paul's School for Girls.

He was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, where a memorial service was held yesterday .

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Ostella Johnson Cowan of Homeland; and two grandchildren.

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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