Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Helen Delich Bentley (1923-2016)
MSA SC 3520-1969

Extended Biography: 

Helen Delich Bentley, otherwise known as "Tugboat Helen" and "Battleaxe,"1  made her mark on both Maryland and national history by being a champion “of our nation’s merchant marine and our maritime industry."2  In the maritime industry, she “distinguished herself [by] developing an unparalleled expertise in the complexities of [the] industry."3 Many have gone as far to say that “Helen is one of the most knowledgeable people on maritime matters in the entire world."4

Ms. Bentley was born on November 28, 1923, in Ruth, Nevada to Michael and Mary Delich, two Yugoslavian immigrants.5 Ms. Bentley grew up with six siblings and faced the tragedy of her father’s death when she was only eight years old. A miner, he died from the lung disease Silicosis.6 Mrs. Delich took in miners as boarders to make ends meet after her husband's death. Ms. Bentley recalled that "the boarders slept in shifts, like they worked. When one group left for work, mom would quickly straighten out the beds and another group would tumble right in!"7 Being financially dependent on the miners created a precarious lifestyle because they were laid off at various times. As a result, Ms. Bentley's family would go for periods "without the necessities of life."8 To aid her mother, Ms. Bentley started working at a local dress shop at the age of twelve.9  She continued to work various jobs throughout the entirety of her childhood and college career.10 Winning scholarships, she attended The University of Missouri in 1944, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in only three years.11

Although faced with obstacles, Ms. Bentley “not only survived, she [rose] to the top.”12 In 1945, at the age of twenty-two, she began her life changing career as a maritime reporter for The Baltimore Sun;13 her first column was titled "Around the Waterfront" as she was assigned to report on the Port of Baltimore.14 It is believed she became interested in the maritime field because her mother immigrated to Baltimore on a North German Lloyd Steamship.15 Consequentially, a significant passion about the importance of the maritime industry and the Port developed, which was fitting because at the time the Port of Baltimore was “in poor shape” and in need of change.16

Ms. Bentley excelled mostly through educating herself about maritime concepts, and she did so in a field dominated by men. In reflection of this, she noted that “I am a woman who worked in men’s fields for a long time.”17 Indeed, Ms. Bentley was the “first female maritime editor in the entire United States” and did extraordinary things such as report about the maritime industry through the Cold and Vietnam Wars.18 During the Vietnam War she was even elected to travel to and report from Saigon.19

As Ms. Bentley became increasingly successful at The Baltimore Sun, she moved to television in 1950, and had her own program about the Baltimore Port titled “The Port That Built a City” (later renamed ‘The Port That Built a City and State).20 During this time period, Ms. Bentley married William Bentley, a school teacher.21

In 1969, President Richard Nixon noticed Ms. Bentley's brillance with the maritime industry and appointed her, at age forty-five, as Chairman of the Federal Marine Commission (FMC), a position she held until 1975.22  This would be an amazing honor for any individual, but it was astoundingly exceptional for Ms. Bentley because the appointment made her the fourth highest ranking woman in the Nixon Administration, the highest ranking woman in the Executive Branch, the first woman to serve a key governmental position in the maritime field, and the first woman appointed by a president to head a regulatory agency.23

Ms. Bentley experienced much success as the Chairman of the Federal Marine Commission. For example, she played a substantial role in the 1970 Merchant Marine Act, strengthened the American industry, and strove to keep jobs within the United States.24 She also continued her legacy of hands-on involvement by actions such as being on the S.S. Manhattan when it crashed through Arctic Ice to make a new Northwest Passage for the shipment of petroleum from Alaska (she was the only female on the vessel during this mission.)25

Ms. Bentley sought more involvement in politics and, after three attempts, was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where she represented the Maryland 2nd Congressional District for five terms, from 1985-1995. She continued to be a champion of the maritime industry and during her time in the House of Representatives she was a member of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, as well as the Appropriation, Budget, Public Works and Transportation committees.26 Additionally, she was a member of the Steel, Art, Northeast, Human Rights, and Trade and Tourism caucuses.27Although technically a Republican, Ms. Bentley, a well loved politician, was moderate on many issues and related well to a large portion of the Maryland population.28

"Helen was breaking 'the glass ceiling' before that term was in use.”29  Ms. Bentley made significant headway while in the House of Representatives: one of her most momentous accomplishments was to dredge and deepen the channel of the Port of Baltimore in order to make the Port competitive. She eventually received federal support for this plan and was able to witness its success. She noted "I firmly believe we are succeeding…evidence is clear that there is renewed confidence in Baltimore -- on the part of shippers as well as on the part of ocean carriers."30 Others also recognized such success by stating that Ms. Bentley “helped make Baltimore one of the busiest ports in the world.”31 Further, Ms. Bentley helped lay groundwork for the Maritime Security Program which intended to “provide safe transport for cargo ships.”32 She was also an avid supporter of the United States job market and demonstrated this though actions such as smashing a Toshiba boom box on the Capitol steps in protest of the company selling machinery to Moscow.33

In 1994, Ms. Bentley gave up her congressional seat to run for Governor of Maryland. In the Republican primary for this election she ran against her fellow 2013 Women's Hall of Fame inductee Ellen R. Sauerbrey. 34 Due to various factors, such as questions about her age (she was seventy-eight at the time), Ms. Bentley's campaign was unsuccessful.35 This did not deter such a motivated woman however, and she began her own maritime consulting firm,36 Helen Delich Bentley & Associates, Inc., of which she is currently President and CEO. This business, located in Timonium Maryland, helps “groups and other businesses involved with government and Maryland's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.”37   Her firm specializes in trade and economic development while it aids public and private organizations including the Maryland Port Authority.38

Without surprise, Ms. Bentley is the recipient of a copious amount of honors and awards. As a testament to this, in the 1990-1991 edition of Who’s Who in America her titles and honors take up 42 lines.39 She has received awards such as the National Security Leadership Award, (1987) and she is an honorary member in organizations such as the Marine Society of New York and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. In addition, Ms. Bentley has been awarded ten honorary doctorates from colleges such as the University of Maryland and Villa Julie (now Stevenson University.)40  Recent honors include the Governor’s International Leadership Award by Governor Robert Ehrlich in 2006, being awarded the First Citizen Award by the President of the Maryland Senate in 2013, and being inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.41  

However, perhaps the most prominent honor bestowed upon Ms. Bentley came in 2006 when, at the Port of Baltimore’s 300th Anniversary celebration, Governor Robert L. Ehrlich announced that the Port would be named after her. Governor Ehrlich stated that “there has been no one who has championed the vital role the Port plays in both the global economy and our everyday lives more than Helen” and announced that the Port would be renamed “The Helen Bentley Port of Baltimore.”42 While airports and other establishments are often named after people, Ms. Bentley was the “first person, male or female, to have an entire seaport named after her,” making this honor even more meaningful.43 Additionally, because of this honor, many refer to Ms. Bentley as “the godmother of the Port of Baltimore,"44 which is fitting because although Ms. Bentley and her husband never had children, she often considered the Port her child.45

“There have been very few women who have made as large a mark on our great state as Helen Bentley."46 For decades, Ms. Bentley has worked to significantly improve the lives of Marylanders through progressing the Helen Bentley Port of Baltimore and fighting to maintain jobs in Maryland. All the while, she has been an inspiration to all women, proving that with enough motivation and dedication, any career field is open. Ms. Bentley is a unique woman, caring and unafraid to speak her mind. Figures such as her are what will move Maryland and the Nation to a better state.

Helen Delich Bentley passed away on August 6, 2016, at the age of 92.

Quotes:

 "I've known Helen, have great respect for her. She's a tough lady. She was very instrumental in helping turn around the port."
-Governor Schaffer47

 “She took nothing more than a beat on a daily newspaper and made it into a national force in support of the American maritime industry.”
-
Peter Tirschwell 48

 “Bentley has been a 'rock to Baltimore's port community for over 50 years.'"
-F. Brooks Royster III49

 

Endnotes

1. Carolyn B. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Women of Achievement in Maryland History, Inc., 2002), pg. 375    return to text

2. Elijah E. Cummings, Letter to Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, October 22, 2012  return to text 

3. Ibid.  return to text 

4. Gloria G. Lawlah, Letter to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, 2012  return to text 

5. “Bentley, Helen Delich,” History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed June 20, 2013, http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/9284?ret=True  return to text 

6. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, p. 375  return to text 

7. Ibid  return to text 

8. Ibid.  retrun to text

9. Ibid.  return to text 

10. “The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley,” Helen Bentley &Associates, Inc.: opens doors, accessed on June 20, 2013, http://helendelichbentley.com/bentley-bio/  return to text 

11. Ibid.  return to text 

12. Lawlah, Letter to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame  return to text 

13. “The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley”  return to text 

14. women of achievment  return to text

15. Meredith Cohn, “Port “Godmother” Honored; Maryland Salutes Helen Delich Bentley, Longtime Champion of Baltimore’s Maritime Industry,” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland),  June 2, 2006  return to text 

16. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History,  p. 375  return to text 

17. “Bentley, Helen Delich”  return to text 

18. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History,  p. 375  return to text 

19. Helen Delich Bentley, “A Reporter Makes the News,” The Sun Magazine (Baltimore, MD), 2013  return to text 

20. James J. White, Letter to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, October 23, 2012  return to text 

21. “Bentley, Helen Delich”  return to text 

22. “The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley”  return to text 

23.  Ibid.  return to text 

24.  Ibid.  return to text 

25. Elizabeth Shelton, “Helen Bentley, Arctic-Bound with Appointment: Arctic-Bound Appointee,” The Washington Post, August 12, 1969  return to text 

26. “The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley”  return to text 

27. Ibid.  return to text 

28. Barbara A. Mikulski, Letter to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, October 24, 2012  return to text 

29. Lawlah, Letter to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame  return to text 

30. Roger Simon, “Bentley’s Three “Negatives” are Schaefer, Serbia, age,” The Sun, November 10, 1993  return to text 

31. Stegman, Women of Achievement,  p. 375  return to text 

32 “The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley”  return to text 

33. Frank Langfitt, “Honors for Bentley Stalled; Remembrance: Admirers of Former Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley Tried to Name the Baltimore Beltway after Her. But She Hardly Qualifies—She’s Still Alive.:,” The Sun, September 27, 1996  return to text 

34. Ibid.  return to text 

35. Ibid.  return to text 

36. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History,  p. 375 return to text

37. “Helen Bentley & Associates,” Lutherville-Timonium Patch,  last modified 2013, http://timonium.patch.com/listings/helen-bentley-associates  return to text 

38. Langfitt, “Honors for Bentley Stalled “  return to text 

39. Simon, “Bentley’s Three “Negatives"  return to text 

40. "The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley”  return to text 

41. “Business,” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), April 1, 2006  return to text 

42. “The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley”  return to text 

43. White, Letter to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame  return to text 

44. Ibid.  return to text 

45. Ibid.  return to text 

46. Ibid.  return to text 

47. Cohn, “Port “Godmother” Honored"  return to text

48.
Ibid.  return to text 

49. Ibid.  return to text 


Biography written by 2013 summer intern Rachel Alexander.

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