Gilbert E. South, 63, ministry director, ran twice for political office

August 23, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Gilbert E. South, director of ministry advancement for the Lutheran Mission Society and a two-time Republican candidate for Howard County executive, died Wednesday of a heart attack while playing basketball in Centennial Park in Columbia. He was 63 and lived in Ellicott City.

Mr. South, who won state racquetball championships and ran marathons well into his 40s, had a passion for athletics and sport that was surpassed perhaps only by his devotion to his faith. He was business administrator of the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware from 1959 to 1986 and served as an elder and treasurer of Patapsco Community Church in Ellicott City.

"He was a good man, and he loved working for the Lord," said his wife of 39 years, the former Maria Ann DiGiacomantonio.

A South Baltimore native, Mr. South often talked about his hardscrabble roots. He worked with his father on a Muhly's Bakery bread route, often rising at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to help make deliveries. Sometimes, his pay was "the holes cut out of the doughnuts," said his son, David W. South of San Francisco.

"I grew up on Grindall Street, which was the toughest street in South Baltimore," Mr. South said in a 1983 Sun interview. "We didn't use knives or guns or drugs in those days, just hand-to-hand combat."

As a boy, Mr. South joined the Baltimore Police Boys Club, where he took up boxing. He also became known for his singing voice, catching the attention of a Sunday school teacher who arranged free piano and voice lessons for him. Neighborhood women often asked him to sing on request, his son said.

"They'd call my father over to the window and they'd say, `Sing me a song, Gilbert,' " David South said. "My father had a beautiful voice."

Mr. South graduated from Southern High School in 1954. From 1956 to 1958, he served in Korea with the Army Security Agency.

"He used to tell me they'd sit there with their headphones on and they'd intercept North Korean messages being sent via Morse code," David South said. "When certain signals came across, everybody would get excited."

Mr. South also had a profound spiritual experience in Korea, when he entered a chapel and accepted Jesus Christ, his son said.

"I believe that whole process probably completed itself when he returned to the U.S.," his son said. "In the 36 years I knew my father, his mission in life was to witness to everyone that he could. That included me, on a regular basis. And I appreciated it."

He married in 1959. In 1970, he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Baltimore, graduating cum laude.

Mr. South worked a series of jobs while taking classes at night, doing accounting for cleaning, construction and waterfront companies. "I always remember him being up at 5 o'clock in the morning," David South said. "He was a very driven person. On top of that he was always doing taxes for people he knew."

Mr. South founded Frontier Systems of America Inc., a real estate management company and was chief financial officer tor Pyramid Environmental Systems Inc., a housekeeping services firm, and Bach Brothers Inc., a construction business.

In 1986 and in 1990, Mr. South ran unsuccessfully for Howard County executive on the Republican ticket. He seemed to acknowledge his underdog status in the race in a Sun interview:

"I know it's an uphill battle, but my whole life's been an uphill battle."

From 1986 to 1994, he was the proprietor of Cafe Normandie, a gourmet French restaurant in Ellicott City. When the original manager died suddenly of a heart attack, Mr. South took the reins.

"My father, being entrepreneurial in spirit, he's a guy used to wearing a lot of different hats," David South said.

The racquetball bug bit Mr. South in the late 1960s. He was the first person in Maryland to win all three men's division titles -- open, senior and master's. He completed two state marathons, with a personal best of three hours and 46 minutes at age 44.

Mr. South, who once dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association, was playing basketball with friends in Centennial Park when he died. They were planning to participate in the Senior Olympics.

"I've often said to my friends that he's one of the very few people that I completely, totally respect," said David South. "That is because he walked what he talked. I never had occasion to see my father or to hear of my father not doing what he said and not practicing what he believed."

Mr. South was a board member of the Baptist Foundation and Inner Harbor Ministries, and initiator of the Christian Foundation of Howard County.

Services were held Saturday.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a brother, James South of Ellicott City; and a sister, Doris Petterson of Baltimore.

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