Odyssey and homecoming of a much-loved book

BACK STORY

April 05, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

The other evening, I was rereading a signed copy of Hamilton Owens' book, Baltimore on the Chesapeake, which he presented to The Sun library in 1941.

There is no inscription save a quick "Hamilton Owens" written in black ink in a tight script on the book's flyleaf.

I last looked at the book, a whimsical popular history of the city published by Doubleday, Doran & Co. Inc., probably 30 years ago. What prompted me to pick it up again was the death of Hamilton Owens' son, Gwinn F. Owens, at 87, on March 22.

Gwinn, who had been a longtime reporter and editor, was the first op-ed page editor of The Evening Sun's "Other Voices" page when it was unveiled in 1979.

In addition to a busy professional career, he also found the time to write with co-author Stanley A. Blumberg two critically acclaimed books, Energy and Conflict: The Life and Times of Edward A. Teller and The Survival Factor: Israeli Intelligence from World War I to the Present.

He also wrote three privately published novels.

Combing through Baltimore on the Chesapeake, I rediscovered a wonderfully evocative sentence about Maryland.

"Man is set in his ways and, especially in Maryland, is inclined to regard yesterday as more important and more divine than tomorrow," the elder Owens had written.

While going through Gwinn's byline files from the newspaper's library before writing his obituary, I stumbled upon a 1977 clipping that he had written about his father's book for The Evening Sun.

"The book, Baltimore on the Chesapeake, was born in the summer of 1941. At that time I was far from Baltimore, working on the Des Moines (Iowa) Tribune, my first newspaper reporting job," Owens had written. "The author was Hamilton Owens, my father, then editor of The Sun."

Enclosed with the book was a letter in which his father explained to his son that the copy he was holding in his hands was the first one off the press.

"This gesture wasn't because I was a favored child, but a sentimental recognition that I was the only one of his five children who had chosen to follow his journalistic calling," wrote Owens.

"It was a labor of love for my father, but labor, none the less. All of us had felt the burden vicariously during his long evenings of work for several years. I was thrilled to hold the final product in my hand," he wrote. "What pleased me the most of all, however, was the inscription inside."

Inside, his father had written: "For Gwinn, who will probably write a better one some day.

"Love, Father."

"Naturally, it became the most honored book in my library," wrote Owens, who was a longtime resident of Locust Avenue in Ruxton.

Years later, Owens lent the book to an old friend, Lester H. Gliedman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University, who lived in Lutherville.

In 1958, Gliedman and his wife, Gertrude, were returning from a convention in San Francisco when their Baltimore-bound Capital Airlines Viscount collided with a National Guard jet trainer over Frederick County.

Twelve lost their lives in the midair crash, including the husband and wife, whose four children, ranging in age from 5 to 16 years, were left orphaned.

Owens, who at the time was a reporter for The Evening Sun, received an "alarmed call" from Gliedman's office.

"I had the burden of informing his colleagues that, yes, the couple had been killed," Owens wrote. "It was an appalling tragedy."

Owens was aware that his book still rested at the family's home, but to ask about it, he wrote, would have been insensitive. It was, after all, a "trivial possession."

What consumed Owens and other friends of the couple was the overwhelming fate of the orphaned children and how their family would be rebuilt.

"Never, even years afterward, did I feel I had any right to ask his survivors about my copy of Baltimore on the Chesapeake," he wrote.

After Hamilton Owens died in 1967, his daughter-in-law, Joan Owens, Gwinn's wife, wanted to obtain copies of the long-out-of-print book for their four children.

She called Fran Saybolt, a Ruxton neighbor and longtime Smith College Book Sale manager, and left a standing order that she was to purchase any copies of Baltimore on the Chesapeake that had been donated to the sale.

"In the course of several years, Mrs. Saybolt's watchfulness yielded four copies, one for each child," Gwinn Owens wrote.

Over the years, he thought of updating his father's book, but some other writing project always seemed to get in the way, so he never got around to it.

"Occasionally I thought about the loss of my own priceless copy, which by 1977, had been missing for more than 20 years," he wrote.

Before the 1977 sale commenced, Mrs. Owens again reminded her Berwick Road neighbor to look for any copies that might make their way to the annual sale that raises scholarship money for students attending Smith College.

When Owens arrived home from work, Saybolt's son, David, met him in the driveway and handed him another copy of Baltimore on the Chesapeake.

The young boy insisted that he open it.

"I did. The odyssey of a book was over. Inside the cover was written: 'For Gwinn, who will probably write a better one some day.

'Love, Father.' "

"Gwinn was always so neighborly and I felt sorry for him that he had lost his copy of his father's book," Fran Saybolt, who is still active with the sale, recalled in a telephone interview from her Ruxton home the other day.

"I found a copy and it seemed to be what he had been talking about, and I couldn't believe it was in front of me," she said. "So, I bought it and sent it over to his house with David."

It wasn't long before Fran Saybolt's phone rang.

"Gwinn called immediately. He couldn't imagine that from the mountain of books we receive, I had found it," she said. "It was very exciting."

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