Robert Baker Alexander, 97, C&P Telephone executive


Robert Baker Alexander, a retired Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. executive who had worked on construction of the DEW Line radar stations in the 1950s, died of heart failure Monday at the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville. He was 97.

Mr. Alexander was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and was raised there and in Atlanta. He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1929 from the Georgia Institute of Technology and began his career in the southern states as a lineman in the Long Lines Division of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

After holding positions in Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia, he became a plant manager in Baltimore in 1951.

In 1955, Western Electric Corp. named Mr. Alexander assistant construction director for the DEW Line - the Distant Early Warning Line series of 63 manned and unmanned air defense radar stations across 3,000 miles from Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to Alaska.

Called at the time the "world's toughest construction job," the DEW Line employed 25,000 workers and was built along the 69th parallel under some of the most inhospitable weather conditions found on Earth.

"It was built because long-range Russian bombers could follow the great circle route and swoop down over Canada and into the United States. So it was of strategic urgency to have a string of radar stations," said a son, William T. Alexander II, a retired Navy captain.

"The logistics involved in its construction were just incredible in addition to the terribly harsh weather conditions. Just getting the equipment to the Arctic wilderness was a challenge," said Captain Alexander, who had accompanied his father to one of the construction sites.

During his tenure in the Arctic, Mr. Alexander logged more than 300,000 miles on 31 trips and once flew over the North Pole. "He was really proud of the project and because he flew over the North Pole, he was offered membership in the Explorer's Club in New York City," Captain Alexander said.

Finished in 1957, the DEW Line became part of NORAD - the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Subsequent missile developments and the end of the Cold War reduced its strategic importance.

Mr. Alexander returned to Baltimore in 1958 when he was named assistant vice president for personnel at C&P Telephone.

When the Princess telephones were unveiled in 1959, with a night light and illuminated dial, Mr. Alexander told The Sun that for all of its features, "the new models don't talk any better than the plain old black ones."

"Bob was a very honest and sensitive person. I knew him when he was in labor relations. He bargained labor contracts with the Communication Workers of America. They trusted and respected him and worked very well together because he was a truthful person," said William M. Corun, a longtime friend and former C&P division staff manager.

Mr. Alexander retired in 1968.

Active in cultural and community affairs, he had served as secretary of the Baltimore Committee for Equal Opportunity and on the boards of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Chapter of the American Lung Association and Blue Cross Association of Maryland.

A former communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and a member of All Saints Episcopal Church in Frederick, Mr. Alexander had long been active in affairs of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

From 1977 until earlier this year, he had been secretary of the board of the Episcopal Ministries to the Aging and played a pivotal role in the development of Fairhaven, the life-care facility that opened in 1980.

He and his wife of 67 years, the former Sarah Richter Wheeler, an artist who worked in oils and pastels, were among its first residents. She died in 1998.

"The board just couldn't do without him," said the Rt. Rev. David K. Leighton, former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. "He was certainly no egotist and didn't have to be one. He was just one of those unusual human beings that everyone liked."

He was a member of Telephone Pioneers of Maryland and had been chairman of the Frederick County Chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. He enjoyed writing poetry and short stories, bird watching and baseball.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow in the chapel at Fairhaven, 7200 Third Ave.

Survivors also include another son, Joseph H. Alexander of Asheville, N.C., two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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