James L. Foley Jr., 81, Baltimore traffic and transit commissioner

October 08, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

James L. Foley Jr., the Baltimore transit and traffic commissioner who won the hearts of the city's Irish by allowing the painting of a green stripe down Cathedral Street for St. Patrick's Day, died Saturday of pneumonia at Good Samaritan Hospital. He was 81 and lived in Perry Hall.

Mr. Foley was a low-key and less blustery individual than his predecessor, the flamboyant and voluble Henry A. Barnes, the city's first transit and traffic commissioner. Mr. Foley replaced Mr. Barnes in 1962 when Mayor J. Harold Grady appointed him to the post.

Mr. Barnes, who was dubbed the "czar" during his 8 1/2-year tenure in Baltimore, had left to become New York City's director of traffic.

One of Mr. Foley's first acts as commissioner occurred on St. Patrick's Day Eve in 1962, when he and a four-man crew arrived at dawn on a deserted Cathedral Street and laid down a kelly green line in the center of the street for the next day's parade.

For years, Mr. Barnes had refused to allow Baltimore streets to wear the green, and Mr. Foley's reversal of the policy instantly endeared him to Baltimore's Irish.

Mr. Foley, who was nicknamed the "chief," was born and raised in Chicago, where he graduated from high school. In 1941, he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Detroit and began his career as a junior traffic aide in Detroit.

After serving as a Naval officer during World War II, he worked for DeLeuw, Cather & Co. as an assistant traffic and transit engineer and later as a traffic planning engineer for the city of Chicago.

Mr. Foley moved to Homeland in 1953, when he joined the Baltimore engineering firm of J. E. Greiner Co. As a traffic engineer, some of his major projects included the design of the Jones Falls Expressway and the East-West Expressway.

"It certainly was a tough act following Barnes, but we were amazed how he handled it so well, and he handled it so well because he was a good engineer," said William F. Zorzi Sr. of Baltimore, who worked as deputy transit and traffic commissioner with Mr. Foley. and Mr. Barnes.

"He completed a lot of Barnes' projects, including the master control system project which controlled traffic signals and kept traffic moving," he said. Mr. Zorzi also credited him with introducing the use of the area's first traffic helicopter which informed the department -- and the public over WFBR-AM radio.

He also helped enact the anti-jaywalking ordinance, over which he clashed with Police Commissioner Bernard J. Schmidt by suggesting that officers shout at jaywalkers.

"A policeman blowing a whistle and yelling, `Hey, you -- lady in the green hat,' can be just as effective as an arrest," he told The Evening Sun in 1962. The police commissioner felt such outbursts would undermine the department's orders that their men "remain courteous at all times," he said.

Other accomplishments included a requirement in 1962 that seat belts be used in all city-owned vehicles and the elimination of the city's last two streetcar lines.

"He was always concerned with automobile safety and even made us wear the seat belts in our Dodge Dart. He told us, `We've paid extra for them and you're going to wear them,' " said a son, James L. Foley III of Perry Hall, laughing.

He resigned from the department in 1969 and went to work in Washington for the Federal Highway Safety Administration as director of national highway safety. He retired in 1986.

"He was a hard-working man who worked long hours. Also, he never called you on the carpet without dusting it off first," said Mr. Zorzi, laughing.

He enjoyed sailing the Chesapeake Bay aboard his 26-foot sloop, Lyshpabaca, named for the first two letters of his five daughters' names.

Mr. Foley was married in 1946 to the former Betty McNeill; she died in 1995.

He was a communicant of Isaac Jogues Roman Catholic Church, 9215 Old Harford Road, where a Memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Mr. Foley is survived by another son, John D. Foley of Madison, Wis.; five daughters, Lynn F. Schleupner of Wilmington, N.C., Sharon F. Gedwellas of Deerfield, Ill., Patrice D. Foley of York, Pa., Barbara M. Foley of Phoenix, Ariz. and Cathryn L. Walker of Kona, Hawaii; three sisters, Mary Fran Seidl of Corpus Christi, Texas, Ann Shea of Sun City, Ariz. and Barbara Giovingo of Billings, Mo.; 13 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

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