J. Fife Symington Jr.

[ Age 97 ] Airline pioneer who brought international air travel to Baltimore also served as U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.

December 11, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN REPORTER

J. Fife Symington Jr., who helped bring international air flights to Baltimore through Pan American World Airways and was a former ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, died of old-age complications Sunday at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Glyndon resident was 97.

Mr. Symington worked to establish early commercial aviation routes and was among the first employees to open the Pan Am terminal at what is now the Dundalk Marine Terminal in 1937.

Born in Baltimore, he was attracted to flying through an uncle, John Hambleton, a World War I flying ace who was a Pan American founder. After graduating from the Kent School in Kent, Conn., he earned a bachelor's degree at Princeton University in 1933, the year he also rode as a gentleman jockey in the My Lady's Manor and Grand National point-to-point races.

"It was the depths of the Depression. You couldn't buy a job," he said in an oral history interview done in 2003. "So I borrowed some cash and went over all the routes that Pan American was flying," he said of his trips to Miami; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Trinidad and along the east coast of South America in 1933.

He wrote of his experiences and was given a job with the airline, but was told he first had to work as a laborer at 27 cents an hour at the old Glenn L. Martin plant in Middle River. He also got a pilot's license - and emerged unhurt from three Baltimore County crashes. He landed - with no propeller - on his parents' farm outside of Lutherville on one occasion.

"He was a courageous man, said his son, J. Fife Symington III, the former governor of Arizona. "He had the heart of lion and, through thick and thin, he was there for his friends and family."

Mr. Symington joined the airline in 1934 and was assigned to Rio de Janeiro.

"If you took off from Bahia for Rio, you had to know how many passengers, freight and how much weight, because the mail had to go through before anything else," he said in the interview.

Mr. Symington, who learned to speak Portuguese while in Brazil, was also fluent in French, Spanish and Italian, and had rudimentary knowledge of Russian.

He was named traffic manager when Pan Am opened a terminal on Colgate Creek near Dundalk in 1937. Seaplanes landed in the Baltimore harbor and took passengers to Bermuda, among other destinations.

In 1939 he married Martha Frick, who was the granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick, the Pittsburgh industrialist and art patron. While on their honeymoon at Williamsburg, Va., he received a wire from Juan Trippe, Pan Am's president, ordering him to sail aboard the liner George Washington and open an office in London. He served in England until London was heavily damaged by German bombers during World War II. During the war he managed trans-Atlantic traffic for the Navy and held the rank of lieutenant. He left Pan Am as an executive assistant at the Chrysler Building in New York in 1948.

He then returned to Maryland and was president of Baltimore County Supply Co., a lumber and hardware business in Owings Mills. He lived off Seminary Avenue at the Zemlyn Porches Farm.

Mr. Symington, a conservative Republican, ran unsuccessfully for seats in Congress in 1958, 1960 and 1962 and against Daniel Brewster and Clarence Long. He also was a past state Republican finance chairman.

He campaigned for Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. He hosted a Goldwater event at his Lutherville home that year. Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon attended the event and took aside Hopkins President Milton Eisenhower to plot surreptitiously the candidacy of Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton.

Mr. Nixon, as president, named Mr. Symington ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago in 1969. He held the post until 1971.

"Mr. Symington looked every inch an ambassador," a 1969 Evening Sun article said. "A gray pinstripe suit sat nicely against a yellow button-down shirt. His gray hair, also flecked with yellow, was neatly patted and parted on the side. He exuded supreme confidence and charm."

His years in Trinidad included a political crisis.

"He walked into a hornet's nest when the army staged a coup and seized the armory," his son said. "The prime minister appeared in tears at my father's door. It was a scary time. Pop acted decisively and called in airlift, and the U.S. fleet was brought in. He slept with a gun under his bed."

Mr. Symington was a past chairman of the board of the Maryland Historical Society. He was also Master of the Hounds at the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club. He was a past president of the Maryland Children's Aid Society.

Funeral services will be at 3 p.m. Friday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 230 Garrison Forest, where he was a member.

In addition to his son, survivors include his partner of 20 years, Natalie Brengle; three daughters, Helen Clay Chace of New York, former board chairwoman of the Frick Collection; Arabella Dane of New Hampshire, a Garden Club of America official, and Martha Frick Symington Sanger of Baltimore, a biographer and author; a brother, Donald Symington of Baltimore; a sister, Leith Griswold of Baltimore; 13 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren. His marriage ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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