John T. Starr Sr.

[ Age 98 ] The engineer specialized in water resources, first for the Army Corps of Engineers, then as a consultant.

February 23, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

John Thornton Starr Sr., a retired engineer and widely published freelance writer, died Tuesday of cancer at an assisted living facility in West Bath, Maine. The longtime Govans resident was 98.

Mr. Starr was born in Baltimore and raised in the 2000 block of E. Chase St. He was a 1927 graduate of Polytechnic Institute and earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from the Johns Hopkins University in 1938.

He studied under Dr. Abel Wolman at Hopkins, who was then the world's foremost expert on water purification, while earning a master's degree in water resources.

Mr. Starr began his career as a surveyman with the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1936.

During World War II, he was water supply and sanitary engineer for the Army in Maryland and Pennsylvania. He was promoted in 1954 to chief of planning, which gave him planning responsibility for water resources of the Susquehanna and Potomac River basins and the Chesapeake Bay.

After retiring in 1970, he served as a water consultant to the United Nations and the state Department of Planning regarding the Potomac River.

He was a life member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Christie Society.

Mr. Starr often attributed his success in life to being "educated at Poly, Hopkins and the Enoch Pratt Library," said his daughter, Pamela Starr May of Annapolis.

Mr. Starr's hobby was writing. Over the years he produced hundreds of book reviews, travel articles and op-ed page pieces on a wide range of topics for The Sun, Evening Sun and the Atlantic Monthly, among other publications.

"Back when the op-ed page was a community platform, Gwinn F. Owens, who was The Evening Sun's op-ed editor, cultivated and published a lot of writers, and John was one of them," said James H. Bready, retired Evening Sun editorial writer and former Sunday Sun book columnist.

"He was like the title of Frank Beirne's book - an amiable Baltimorean," Mr. Bready said.

In a commentary published in 1981 in The Evening Sun, Mr. Starr examined the ancient art of dowsing, which is the search for water with a divining rod.

He went on to explain that his father, who had complete faith in dowsing, had located a well on his property, by using a hazel twig.

Actually, he wrote, a well would have tapped water if it had been dug anywhere on the property and use of the twig really made no difference.

"If it made me happy to be scientific (and stuffy) about it, that was all right with him," he wrote.

Describing life in Baltimore and other cities in the "good old days" of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Mr. Starr wrote, "It was rather for the most part, noisome filth in the streets, household waste in the gutters, and a quarantine notice tacked to your neighbor's door."

Mr. Starr was fascinated with the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal - the busiest canal in the nation and the third busiest in the world - which began operation in 1829.

He told the story of a fiddler who filled the "night air with melancholy tunes" while sitting on a bridge over the canal, until falling into the swirling waters one night and drowning.

"But some people over in Delaware will still tell you that if you throw a silver coin in the water just after the stroke of midnight, he will play again," he wrote.

Mr. Starr was a founder of the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and later served as a board member and president. .

Mr. Starr was an avid traveler.

"He would save up the money he received for his writing and took his family on fabulous vacations each year," his daughter said.

His wife of 57 years, the former Elizabeth Feustle, died in 1992.

He was an active communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, at York and Cedarcroft roads, where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. March 1.

Also surviving are a son, John T. Starr Jr. of Topsham, Maine; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Diana Elizabeth Ranieri, died in 1987.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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