Henry C. Engel Jr., 71, served as Maryland's first public defender

December 23, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Henry C. Engel Jr., who became Maryland's first public defender when he took the position in Harford County in 1966, died Friday of pneumonia in Bel Air. He was 71.

Mr. Engel was born in Staten Island, N.Y. When he was a young boy, he began dreaming of being a lawyer, said his wife, Ethel Burkins Engel. He graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and attended the University of Maryland School of Law, where he graduated in 1956.

While he was studying law, he met his future wife, who was living in Towson and teaching elementary school. The couple married in 1955.

After graduation, Mr. Engel worked in private practice before becoming a juvenile master in 1963, where he heard cases involving children.

He was then hired to become Harford County's public defender, the first such appointment in the state. Previously, defendants who could not afford lawyers had been assigned to one of about a dozen lawyers in private practice.

The position paid $5,000 a year and had no allowance for office supplies or secretarial work. "A lot of the [secretaries] worked for minimum wage," which he paid out of his own pocket, said Mrs. Engel.

To augment his salary, he continued to work in private practice until 1972. Despite the low wages, Mr. Engel enjoyed the work. "He was always very interested in people that couldn't afford lawyers. ... He wanted to make sure they were represented well," Mrs. Engel said.

Over the next several years, Mr. Engel hired more public defenders and began to concentrate on juvenile work.

"Serving clients in the public defender's office can be difficult, but [Mr. Engel] was the kind of person who could see the good in anyone and ... could make the client seem like a person and not just another defendant," said Lloyd Merriam, who worked with Mr. Engel as an assistant public defender.

Mr. Merriam had planned on working in the public defender's office for a few years before finding another job, but said Mr. Engel persuaded him to stay.

"I thought I would come back to Baltimore, but Henry was a big reason for me to stay. ... He never lost faith in the basic goodness in people," said Mr. Merriam, who became the county's public defender when Mr. Engel retired in 1993.

That gentle touch extended to almost all areas of Mr. Engel's life, family and friends said. From 1967 to 1973, the Engels had almost a dozen foster children in addition to their five children and "we were always picking up strays. ... It was never just [our immediate family] for dinner," Mrs. Engel said.

Mr. Engel also had a legendary memory and was known as "The Dome" by friends because "his head collected all sorts of trivial facts," Mrs. Engel said.

That collection of facts came in handy during his courtroom arguments and discussions, family and friends said. "There was no such thing as a short conversation" with Mr. Engel, said Mr. Merriam.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. today at McComas Funeral Home, 50 W. Broadway in Bel Air.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Engel is survived by two sons, Charles Henry Engel of Richmond, Va., and John Frederick Engel of Delta, Pa.; two daughters, Christina Marie Dawson of Vashon, Wash., and Phyllis Kathleen Engel of Bel Air; a foster son, Hobert Scott Burton of Pylesville; one sister, Phyllis Jane Seldon of Delta, Pa.; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. He was predeceased by a son, Henry Charles Engel III, and one grandson.

Contributions may be made to the American Diabetes Association, Maryland Affiliate Inc., 3120 Timanus Lane, Suite 106, Baltimore 21224.

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