William E. McGuirk Jr., 87, chairman of the Mercantile

February 23, 2005|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William E. McGuirk Jr., a retired banker who was a behind-the-scenes force in Baltimore's business, medical, educational and religious life for nearly 40 years, died Monday evening of heart failure at his Marylea farm near Bel Air. He was 87.

As chairman of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., he guided its transformation from a local trust institution to a modern bank and wielded considerable financial power on the numerous boards of which he was a member.

He also was a financial adviser to Johns Hopkins Hospital and a Roman Catholic cardinal, and to the publisher of The Sun under the former A.S. Abell Co. -- where he became the last chairman and negotiated its $660 million cash sale in 1986 to Times Mirror.

Mr. McGuirk was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in New York City, where he graduated in 1935 from Loyola School. He was a 1939 graduate of the Naval Academy and attended Harvard Business School before wartime service.

He was captain of the destroyer-minesweeper USS Palmer in the Pacific when it was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft during the Luzon campaign in early 1945 with a loss of 28 crew members. He kept a painting of the ship above his desk.

He attained the rank of lieutenant commander, and his decorations included the Silver Star.

After the war, he returned to New York and was syndicate manager for the old Kuhn, Loeb & Co. from 1945 until 1954 -- with a leave from the brokerage firm for two years in between to serve as assistant to Thomas E. Murray, head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

He moved to Baltimore in 1954 to become vice president of the Davison Chemical Co. division of W.R. Grace & Co. He was president of Davison from 1956 until 1965, when he was appointed chairman of the executive committee at Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co.

He was chairman of the board from 1968 through 1976, and chairman of the parent Mercantile Bankshares Corp. from 1970 until his 1984 retirement.

Shortly after coming to the bank, Mr. McGuirk consolidated Mercantile's offices spread among several downtown buildings and led its move to a new headquarters on Hopkins Place. He guided Mercantile, an old-money trust fund powerhouse, into the commercial banking business by working to establish Mercantile Bankshares Corp.

"Bill had a vision and saw the potential of commercial banking and brought in Baldy [H. Furlong Baldwin] to handle it," said John H. Moser, retired president of Mercantile Bankshares. "He was also a true genius when it came to digesting vast amounts of material. He could sit down and look at a pile of papers and quickly arrive at a plan or an answer."

"He was an extremely precise man. He could add a column of figures in his head. He never used a calculator, and he always used a slide rule, which he called a `slip stick,'" said Kenneth A. Bourne, Mercantile's executive vice president.

"For the power he had, he was extremely low-profile. He didn't drive the latest car. He was not ostentatious. He set a great tone for ethics," Mr. Bourne said.

"He had very high principles and expected everyone to adhere to that philosophy," said Bruce P. Wilson, who was president of Mercantile Bankshares Corp. in the 1970s.

Mr. McGuirk also enjoyed the role of mentor.

"He was magnificent to work for, and he loved giving people authority. And as long as you could handle it and didn't screw up, he kept giving you more," said Mr. Baldwin, who succeeded him as chairman in 1984.

Unlike many executives, when Mr. McGuirk departed for home each evening, he wasn't carrying a briefcase. "He used to say, `If you're carrying a briefcase home, you're not working efficiently,'" Mr. Baldwin recalled.

Mr. McGuirk joined the board of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1956 and was its chairman from 1972 to 1977. He had served as board chairman of Norlin Corp. in New York from 1961 to 1972, and was on the boards of Dun & Bradstreet, Seaboard-Coast Line Railroad, CSX Corp. and Kirk-Stieff Co.

"Bill McGuirk loved his wife and family, the Catholic Church, his farm and the Mercantile," said Baltimore attorney Richard O. Berndt, who was present at his meetings with Cardinal Lawrence Shehan.

"He supported the cardinal but gave him constructive criticism," Mr. Berndt said yesterday. "And Cardinal Shehan would stare him in the face and agree."

Mr. McGuirk reviewed the financial policies of the Baltimore archdiocese, often advising when it was financially prudent to build a school or hospital.

Mr. Berndt credited him with being a creator of the United Way of Central Maryland by shepherding the old Catholic Charities Annual Appeal into the unified giving campaign.

Mr. McGuirk was a communicant of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in Hickory and attended Mass daily.

He was easily moved by the plight of people in need of assistance.

While on a business trip to New York, he saw a man who was unshaven and asking for help. After giving him money for a haircut and a shave, he told the man to return to his hotel and bought him breakfast.

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