Wolman: best of the century

January 02, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

A DAY late, or a year early -- depending on how you count centuries and millenniums -- the moment has come to pick the best of the best over the past 100 years in Maryland.

How do you select the person who made the most monumental difference to Maryland and to the world? Who measures up as Maryland Politician of the Century?

Let's take that last question first. In my mind, two stand out as the best politicians -- Albert C. Ritchie of Baltimore and William Preston Lane of Hagerstown.

Ritchie brought a hidebound Maryland government belatedly into the Progressive Era during the 1920s. As Maryland's only four-term governor, he implemented reforms that remain a cornerstone of government operations to this day. Prodigious achievements.

Yet I cast my ballot for Lane as top Maryland pol.

He surely rates as the most courageous. He stood up in the 1930s to Eastern Shore lynch mobs and led the charge to end such shameful racial tragedies. It cost him any chance of running for reelection as attorney general.

Then as governor in the late 1940s, he pushed through a resistant legislature big tax increases for modernizing roads, bridges, colleges, state hospitals and social service programs that had been neglected in the war years.

That, too, cost him politically. It ensured his defeat in his 1950 reelection bid.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a span that integrated the Eastern Shore into the rest of Maryland, was Lane's doing. So were a slew of state hospitals for those with psychiatric illnesses, mental retardation or tuberculosis. So was a huge expansion of the University of Maryland. And construction of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and U.S. 50 linking Annapolis and the growing Washington suburbs.

Up until Pres Lane, Maryland government had been determinedly conservative and so frugal that needy citizens were often left to fend for themselves.

He set the standard for a caring state government, a government that parted from its conservative past to help society's less fortunate, a government that was willing to spend on education, transportation, health and welfare for the common good.

But the work of politicians is often limited in scope and impact. In reviewing the years 1900-1999, it became clear that elected officials had to take a back seat to two Marylanders whose lasting influence is unmatched.

One was a brilliant scientist, the other a brilliant wordsmith. They helped change the world in the early years of this century and as it continues to evolve today.

Runner-up as Marylander of the Century is H. L. Mencken, the guiding light of American writers since the post-World War I era. He was pure Baltimore, this newspaper's preeminent journalist and Charm City's best and most lasting representative to the world.

He wrote the book on English-language usage, American-style; set the standards for literary criticism in the 20th century; and inspired thousands of writers who tried to match his stunningly effective iconoclastic attacks on everything from middle-class "booboisie," prudery, organized religion, politics and the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of the 1920s.

A half-century since he stopped writing and 43 years since his death, Henry Mencken's renown grows; books on his life multiply. His influence will be felt far into the next century, too.

Yet as great as were Mencken's contributions, they pale next to my No. 1 choice -- Abel Wolman.

For three-quarters of a century, his name has been synonymous with public health and clean drinking water. No greater contribution has been made to human society by a Marylander.

Nearly 85 years ago, he perfected a formula for purifying water with chlorine at a Baltimore filtration plants. That same formula is still used throughout the world.

Locally, Wolman gave Baltimore its outstanding reservoir and water distribution system, the envy of most American communities. He mentored generations of environmental engineers and health professionals at Johns Hopkins. He consulted with every Baltimore mayor from 1920 until his death in 1989.

What an astounding record of achievement. What a difference he made in the lives of billions of men, women and children around the globe. How many more billions will owe their healthy lives to Wolman in the next 100 years?

Hands down, Abel Wolman is Marylander of the 20th Century.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editor of the editorial page.

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