Former U. S. Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, the Democrat from Maryland, was an unusual politician. He was soft-spoken, reserved and, apparent to all, blessed with a first-class mind.
He died Sunday at the age of 87. My guess is that few people, excluding his family, knew of any health problems he had. After he retired from Congress in 2007 after 37 years, including six in the House of Representatives, he typically shunned any residual spotlight.
I read once that Democratic Senate leaders would assign detailed, unglamorous tasks to Sarbanes, knowing he would complete them with little or no fanfare. I recall watching him spar with Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, able to match wits and intelligence with the deliberately obtuse finance guru.
Further, I remember his serving on the House Judiciary Committee, asking tough questions in his steady, dogged fashion during the Watergate impeachment hearings in the early 1970s.
Flash and self-promotion were not part of Sarbanes’ arsenal of personal traits. He preferred operating effectively outside the scope of media glare. Yet, he repeatedly won elections by large margins.
His brainpower, sharpened at Princeton University, Oxford University (as a Rhodes Scholar) and Harvard Law School, was his calling card. So were his integrity and work ethic.
On a personal level, I recalled that he attended my mother’s memorial service in October 1989. Neither my brother nor I knew he planned to attend. No fuss, no fanfare. I felt touched by his attendance and kind words to a Baltimore Evening Sun reporter.
Sen. Sarbanes was raised in Salisbury, Md. by his Greek immigrant parents, working as a youth in their restaurant. Though he rose from humble beginnings to membership in the clubby, exclusive U.S. Senate, Sarbanes exhibited no effect, no pretension. He was serious and cerebral.
His son John, now occupies the House of Representatives seat once held by his father.
Paul Sarbanes was a diligent public servant with a keen mind and acclaimed willingness to take on detailed, complex tasks. He represented Marylanders for 37 years by remaining attuned to their concerns.
He advocated for a cleaner, healthier Chesapeake Bay. He authored legislation after the Enron scandal to ensure ethical behavior by accounting firms.
He eschewed the limelight. That was for others.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.