C. Gilchrist, Montgomery executive, priest, dies

Former politician, 62, had been working in Sandtown ministry

June 26, 1999|By John Murphy and Candus Thomson | John Murphy and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Charles Waters Gilchrist, a two-term Montgomery County executive who left politics to become an Episcopal priest ministering to the poor, died Thursday night of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

"His death was very peaceful," said his daughter, Janet Lydia Gilchrist, 28, of Pinos Altos, N.M. "He was surrounded by family."

A Democrat, Mr. Gilchrist was Montgomery's second county executive and served two terms, from 1978 through 1986, when the county was becoming a center for high-technology industry in the state.

"He was a citizen politician," said Louis D'Ovidio, a County Council aide and former member of the Takoma Park City Council. "He molded the county government and made it what it is today."

In 1984, at the height of his popularity, when everyone believed Gilchrist would coast to a third term, he made the stunning announcement that he would leave politics to study for the priest hood. His son Donald's successful two-year battle against a brain tumor helped shape the decision.

Mr. Gilchrist's wife, Phoebe, took a full-time job as a librarian to put her husband through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va.

"It had been a hard few years, and I think he found another step in serving people," his daughter said. "It really wasn't that big a change from what he had been doing before. It was a caring thing to do."

Mr. Gilchrist's first church was St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in a poor Hispanic neighborhood in his native Washington, D.C. He later sold his Rockville home and moved to Chicago's West Side, where he ran the Cathedral Shelter for recovering addicts and alcoholics.

At the Democratic national convention in Chicago in 1996, Mr. Gilchrist told old political friends that he would be returning east. In Baltimore, he joined the New Song ministry in Sandtown-Winchester, a 12-block West Baltimore neighborhood with hundreds of vacant houses and the entrenched problems of drugs and violence.

Moving into the top two floors of a North Gilmor Street rowhouse, Mr. Gilchrist worked tirelessly raising funds, offering free legal services and helping New Song grow.

Allan M. Tibbels, executive director of New Song Urban Ministries, said Mr. Gilchrist continued to work despite his declining health. In January, poor health led him to move to an apartment near the Inner Harbor, where he pursued impressionistic painting.

"Charlie held out as long as he could," said Mr. Tibbels. "I'll remember him as someone with a depth of character that enabled him to keep going in the face of adversity. There are not many former county executives who would live in this neighborhood."

Jeanne Blinkoff, a family friend, said, "He was a priest of the people, just a huge humanitarian."

Born in 1936, Mr. Gilchrist attended Williams College in Massachusetts and Harvard Law School. Working as a tax lawyer, he served one term in the Maryland Senate before becoming county executive.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who cut his political teeth in Gilchrist's 1978 campaign for executive, called him "a mentor and role model."

"He helped found the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center and is largely responsible for having established Montgomery County as one of the top high-technology centers in the world," Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Gilchrist presided over the county government during the booming 1980s and used tax revenues to pay for homeless shelters, housing for the poor and programs for the mentally ill. He also established the Office of Management and Budget to oversee a $1 billion annual county budget.

Former County Executive Neal Potter met Gilchrist in the 1960s during a fund-raising campaign, "Dollars for Democrats," designed to keep elections out of the hands of developers and other special interests.

"He was in the forefront of good government, a quiet, studious, dedicated public servant," Mr. Potter said.

Mr. Gilchrist said that though he loved serving the people of the county, he found much of the county executive's job "frustrating and thankless."

Two weeks ago, friends helped him set up a personal computer and establish an e-mail address so that he could keep in touch with friends as his condition deteriorated.

In the final months of his life, Gilchrist turned to one of his first loves, painting, and worked on impressionistic oils and watercolors at his Inner Harbor apartment.

"He really went to the heart of things with all the things he did," said Janet Gilchrist. "That's one of the things that caught people's attention."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Gilchrist is also survived by two sons, Donald R. Gilchrist of Rockville and James W. Gilchrist of Annapolis, and two grandchildren.

Services will be held at 10: 30 a.m. Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, N.W.

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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