John Sherwood, Columnist and Features Writer in Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis - December 7, 2016
Sherwood spent almost 20 years at the former Washington Star newspaper capturing the lives and personalities of ordinary, captivating people in print — most of whom had no idea that they were anything but ordinary. With a Runyonesque flair he brought alive the likes of ferry-boat operators, tea room waitresses, pigeon racers, Linotype workers, tool-booth trolls, tug boat drivers, and hundreds more such ilk who likely never dreamed they were important enough to decorate the pages of a big city newspaper or a magazine — as well as individuals with delusions of grandeur. Better yet, he made the reader understand their importance, too.
Consider Vera — "who won't discuss her age," — the late owner of a Polynesian-style Tiki bar and restaurant on the Patuxent River in a Sherwood piece entitled "Empress of the White Sands."
"Vera upstages everything when she materializes nightly, as if in a vision…She has a vast wardrobe that changes with her moods… Sometimes a huge brass gong is sounded upon her arrival. One of the bartenders immediately pours a shallow glass of champagne as Vera glides inside and settles down on a vinyl, leopard skin bar stool across from a grand piano. When the piano player strikes up a Vera favorite, the outdated 'Sheik of Araby,' it's as though someone has waved a wand and commanded the evening to begin."
Sherwood's great gift was the ability to discern hidden, intriguing facets from the hoity-toity to the hoi-polloi. He could make them talk about themselves, often by asking innocently outrageous questions. Take Tony, an 81-year-old Italian bread baker in Baltimore's Little Italy, who spurned retail customers wanting to buy a loaf from the bake shop below his dingy row house apartment, which his father, "Poppy-pop," had started in 1914. Sherwood asked him about retirement.
"We sell 1,000 loaves a day, that's enough," Tony replied furiously. "We could bake and sell 5,000 loaves a day if I expanded, but what for? I don't wanna be a millionaire. I ain't married. I ain't got children. I want to stay here until I die. Poppy-pop liked it here. I like it here."
John Sherwood was born in Baltimore on Nov. 9, 1932, the son of a physician, and graduated in 1951 from Calvert Hall, a private Catholic prep school. He attended "numerous colleges," including the University of Maryland, before enlisting in the Army and serving a tour in Korea after the war had ended. In 1956 he married Elizabeth "Betty" Cronin, who died in 2000.
He began his writing career with The Baltimore Sun newspapers in 1960, then joined the Washington Evening Star in 1962 as a features reporter. Soon he was one of the writers of The Rambler, a popular daily column dedicated to profiling regional people and places. During his days at the Star he'd become a passionate sailor. When the Star folded in 1981, Sherwood migrated to work at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, then moved on to the Miami Herald, but he deeply missed the Chesapeake Bay and the Annapolis area, where he had a home in Severna Park.
He returned to the region in the late 1980s, writing for a variety of sailing and boating magazines. Single-handing his sleek, classic Sparkman & Stevens-designed 22-foot Sailmaster sloop called Erewhon, he became as familiar a feature to people around Annapolis and the Eastern Shore as the great Bay Bridge itself. Up and down the bay and its many tributaries, people knew and always waved when silver-haired "Capt'n Jack" came gliding by with tiller in hand.
In the 1990s Sherwood began writing a regular monthly column, Bay Tripper for the boating magazine Soundings, which featured the wide variety of people who derived their living, sport and pleasure, from the Chesapeake and its environs, and continued writing it until earlier this year. He never missed a column deadline in all those years.
In 1994, Johns Hopkins University Press published Sherwood's well-received "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," illustrated with photographs by Edwin H. Remsberg, which chronicled the ways of life of Marylanders who, like Tony the baker, worked at tasks that were fast becoming antique. The book is a compendium of the many crafts, occupations and skills which are vanishing not only in Maryland but throughout the country — a testimonial to a disappearing world. It remains in print today.
Attribution: Winston Grooom, Capital Gazette
Full story: Forest Gump author remembers Severna Park sailor and journalist Jack Sherwood