Frank J. McCourt, 68, lawyer, colorful state legislator in 1960s

September 02, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Frank J. McCourt, a lawyer and former state legislator who missed the 1969 session of the General Assembly while taking up a hippie lifestyle and spiritual studies in Nepal, died of a heart attack Friday at St. Joseph Medical Center. He was 68.

Mr. McCourt was born in New London, Conn., the son of a Coast Guard officer who moved the family to Baltimore in 1940. He attended city public schools and Fork Union Military Academy in Fork, Va., graduating in 1953.

He held laboring jobs in working his way through what is now Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and was an insurance adjuster while earning a law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1958.

At a time when polyester suits were in fashion, Mr. McCourt favored conservative three-piece, Ivy League-cut pinstriped suits, which he wore with starched white shirts and striped silk ties. He also wore "Baltimore pinks"-- glasses with translucent, slightly yellow-tinted frames.

He was elected as a Democrat to the House of Delegates in 1962 and to the state Senate seat from the old 2nd District in 1966.

"He took on the east-side machine and knocked them off. I still remember his slogan, `Support McCourt,'" state Sen. George W. Della Jr., also a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday. "I always liked Frank. He was just a nice, everyday, mild-mannered guy, and he certainly led a full life."

Mr. McCourt opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and made the first speech in the Maryland Senate against the war -- at a time when "hawkishness was next to godliness," according to an account in The Evening Sun.

Mr. McCourt generated more headlines in the spring of 1968 when he vanished.

During the next 10 months, using an American Express card, he roamed Europe and then arrived in Kashmir, where he began spiritual studies with Sri-Swami-Ganeshanad and married Donna Dixon Mason Horner, a Baltimore widow.

"I'm Hindu by conviction, not conversion," he told The Sun at the time.

Mr. McCourt's worldwide perambulations, during which he also spent time in Nepal, ended after he was located by police and sent word that he would soon return home.

"Senator McCourt sent vibrations from India that he will reclaim his vacant seat in the state Senate. The old State House, which witnessed so much historic happenings, may now accommodate that nation's first hippie legislator," The Evening Sun said.

As the Assembly session moved into its final weeks, Mr. McCourt's return was delayed for 11 days while he was jailed in New York City after being charged by federal authorities with conspiring with his wife to smuggle 17 pounds of hashish into the United States.

His return to the Senate chamber in Annapolis came at a critical moment, when a vote was being taken on a bill that would have legalized pinball machines used for gambling. His abstention resulted in the bill being defeated by one vote.

"There have been rumors and reports in the press," Mr. McCourt told his colleagues before the roll call vote, "that the bail money for me was raised by people interested in the legislation," the newspaper reported. "Those are outright lies, they are not only untrue, they are vicious stories. But out of respect for the Senate, I will pass on the bill."

Although Mr. McCourt and his wife were acquitted after a two-week trial in New York City in 1970, he lost a bid for re-election that fall, and their marriage ended. It had not been legally recognized.

He had one other round of troubles -- a 1971 federal indictment for not filing four years of income tax returns in the mid-1960s. He pleaded guilty to one count and no contest to three others, and was given a year's probation. He was also suspended from practicing law for a year -- a period in which he worked as a carpenter's helper and general laborer for a highway construction firm.

"I have no regrets about things done in my life," he told The Evening Sun in 1977, when he resumed practicing law. "At least I was an honest politician. I was never charged with taking a nickel."

"He was a charming character who was just a very likable person. Everyone thought he had unbounded political potential, but for some reason he squandered it on that Indian trip, and that was it," said a longtime friend, former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides.

Mr. McCourt gave up politics but continued to practice law from an office in the 1000 block of Light St. until his death. For years, until moving to Butchers Hill recently, he lived on a houseboat anchored near the old Dead Eye Saloon in the Baltimore Yacht Basin, not far from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge carrying Hanover Street across the Patapsco's Middle Branch.

"I guess you could say he was the king of traffic court. He also did a lot of pro bono work on purpose, and for those who didn't bother paying him," said his son, Gabriel McCourt of Fallston.

Services were private.

In addition to his son, Mr. McCourt is survived by several cousins. His marriages -- including a later one to the former Barbara Foreman -- ended in divorce.

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