Robert C. 'Bob' Keith, journalist and port historian, dies at 78

Newspaperman who covered Africa in the 1950s gave tours of harbor to schoolchildren

March 02, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Robert C. "Bob" Keith, a retired newspaperman and editor who was also a civic activist and author of a history of the port of Baltimore, died Feb. 23 from complications of emphysema at his Fells Point home.

He was 78.

Mr. Keith was born in Detroit and raised in Rochester, Mich., where he spent his youth fishing and sailing on the Great Lakes, and recording the passing steamers and ore carriers he encountered on his perambulations.

After graduating from Rochester High School in 1947, he began his college studies at the University of Michigan as a political science major.

Mr. Keith later switched his major to journalism and was editor of the Michigan Daily.

After graduating in 1951, he went to work as a reporter for the Detroit News.

He later served in the Army, and after he was discharged in 1956, Mr. Keith weighed two career possibilities: working as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun or working in Washington for the Institute of African American Relations as a founding editor of Africa Special Report, a newsletter that later became a magazine.

Mr. Keith selected the latter.

"The choice was not difficult; as a newspaper person I knew little about magazine publication and even less about Africa," Mr. Keith told Theresa Reuter, a longtime friend, some years ago. "There was a learning experience I could not resist."

Mr. Keith traveled in 1958 to Africa, where he got to know emerging leadership figures and other politicians.

"Through it, he met and made lasting friendships with many young Africans seeking to lead their countries from colonial rule," said Wendy Thompson, a writer, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

"Among his lunch companions and house guests who were to become legendary were Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda; Tom Mboya of Kenya; and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania," Ms. Thompson said.

In 1960, Mr. Keith left the magazine to head production at Congressional Quarterly, where he later became news editor.

Three years later, he left to join The Washington Post, where he headed the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post News Service.

"My press card has taken me to interesting places, including Dallas the day before the assassination of our president and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the day Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have a Dream Speech' - but no memories are more prized and entrenched than those of my visit to Africa in 1958," he told Ms. Thompson in a recorded interview for a documentary she is making about those years.

While working in Washington, Mr. Keith commuted daily by train from Shepherdstown, W.Va., where he raised pigs and cattle on his farm.

After retiring in the late 1970s, he settled first in Little Italy and later in Fells Point, where he established the Ocean Reporter, a magazine devoted to maritime subjects.

He also founded Ocean World Institute Inc., an educational organization that operated the skipjack Minnie V.

As captain of the Minnie V., Mr. Keith took tourists around the harbor and later became part-owner of the Half Shell, a historic 1928 Chesapeake Bay buy-boat that in earlier years was used to purchase oysters from watermen and transport the bivalves to port for sale.

As he had with the Minnie V., Mr. Keith gave schoolchildren tours of the harbor and surrounding waters.

Mr. Keith had an affinity for such wooden vessels, which he called "historic treasures of Maryland" in a 1988 interview in The Evening Sun. He added that the once-working craft are "like people. If you don't use them, they'll deteriorate rapidly."

Lew Diuguid, editor of The Fell's Pointer, is a retired newspaperman and a longtime friend.

"He knew not how to refuse any cause that called for a boat ride around the harbor," Mr. Diuguid wrote in a nomination of Mr. Keith for Fells Point's annual 9/11 Selfless Community Service Award. "Irresolute issues often found their remedy in that venue."

Mr. Keith collaborated with Jim Richardson, the famed shipwright, on wooden boat building.

Mr. Richardson in turn built a replica of a Chesapeake Bay skipjack, the Champion Girl, which Mr. Keith sailed all over the bay before giving the vessel to a friend several years ago.

Mr. Keith's extensive exploration of the Baltimore Harbor by boat Harbor resulted in "Baltimore Harbor," a picture history that was published in 1983 by Ocean World Publishing Inc.

In 2002, the book was re-published in an expanded edition by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Robert J. Brugger, author of "Maryland: A Middle Temperament 1634-1980" and regional editor for the Johns Hopkins University Press, recalled a gala celebrating the book's publication, at which Mr. Keith expressed his love for the harbor and environs.

"Bob took center stage, finally, and spoke movingly about his memories of the old harbor and its welcome revival in more recent times," Dr. Brugger said.

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