Salisbury mourns native son retired Sen. Paul Sarbanes

Former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Salisbury native son Paul Sarbanes, who represented Maryland for 30 years in the U.S. Senate as a leader of financial regulatory reform and drafted the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as a congressman, died Sunday night in Baltimore.

He was 87.

Born in Salisbury on Feb. 3, 1933, he was the son of Greek immigrants who operated a restaurant for many years on West Main Street in Downtown Salisbury. Recognized early for his intelligence, he won a scholarship to Princeton University after graduating from Wicomico High School.

He was a Rhodes Scholar at England’s Oxford University and earned a law degree at Harvard University in 1960.

Much of his family remains in Salisbury. His brother, Tony Sarbanes, is a retired Wicomico educator and former County Council President. His nephew, Jimmy Sarbanes, is the Chief Administrative Judge for the Lower Shore Circuit Court System. His niece, Beth Sheller, is a former Wicomico Teacher of the year.

After law school, Sarbanes moved immediately into the public sector, serving in quick succession as a clerk to a federal appellate judge, an aide to the chairman of the presidential Council of Economic Advisers and executive director of Baltimore’s Charter Revision Commission.

Sarbanes, who retired from the U.S. Senate in 2006 and also served six years as a U.S. representative, was a Democrat known for avoiding the spotlight while quietly pursuing liberal goals.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, the late senator’s son, said his father died peacefully Sunday night in Baltimore.

“Our family is grateful to know that we have the support of Marylanders who meant so much to him and whom he was honored to serve,” he said in a statement. “Following state, local and public health guidance amid the Covid-19 pandemic, our family will hold a private service in the coming days.”

The statement did not reveal the cause of death.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called Sarbanes a “passionate advocate” for Maryland and ordered the state flag flown at half-staff on the day Sarbanes is buried.

The Republican governor noted that his father, Larry Hogan Sr., served on the House Judiciary Committee with Sarbanes during the Watergate inquiry.

The elder Hogan also unsuccessfully challenged Sarbanes for his Senate seat in 1982.

Retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who served along Sarbanes in the U.S. Senate for many years, called her late colleague “the prototype of the self-made American.”

She and Sarbanes, she said, were “retail,” as Mikulski’s parents owned a grocery.

“We were raised on ‘Good morning, can I help you?’ Everything (Paul) did was based on civility. He insisted on intellectual rigor and a respect for others.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Maryland and all Americans lost “a leader and public servant of dignity and principle,” who worked tirelessly over 40 years to bring “integrity, transparency and oversight to Washington.”

“In Congress, Paul Sarbanes was respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for his humility, tenacity and keen intellect,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Sarbanes entered politics in 1966 with a successful run for Maryland’s House of Delegates before reaching Congress four year later.

As a House member, Sarbanes was chosen by fellow Democrats to introduce an article of impeachment for obstruction of justice against Nixon. Sarbanes later said there was no joy in taking steps to bring down a president, but “somebody had to do it.” Nixon resigned before the impeachment proceedings ended.

Known for his cerebral and self-effacing manner, Sarbanes focused during much of his career on complex and seemingly humdrum economic issues. That background helped him drive the legislation that became the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, designed to make corporate executives more accountable.

The law was inspired partly by the 2001 bankruptcy filing of Houston-based Enron Corp. The energy company had become an investor favorite based on amazing financial results that turned out to have been based on accounting fraud. Sarbanes contended that accounting firms and corporations could not be trusted to police themselves.

Sarbanes was also known as an advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, and environmental groups praised him as a champion of the nation’s largest estuary.

After graduating from law school, he entered the public sector, serving in quick succession as a clerk to a federal appellate judge, an aide to the chairman of the presidential Council of Economic Advisers and executive director of Baltimore’s Charter Revision Commission.

He won his U.S. Senate seat in 1976, defeating former Sen. Joseph Tydings in the Democratic primary and then easily unseating incumbent Republican Sen. J. Glenn Beall in the general election.

Opponents used adjectives such as “stealth” to describe Sarbanes’ political career. Supporters said he worked quietly and thoughtfully, eschewing the spotlight for a behind-the-scenes approach.

“I don’t run around beating my drum all the time,” Sarbanes said. “The objective is to get the thing done and accomplished. The recognition ought to be secondary.”

The Sarbanes family is locally legendary and regarded as people who found their dream in America.

The Sarbanes came to this county from Greece in 1930 to build a better life. Martina and Spyros Sarbanes settled in Salisbury and used America’s unique opportunity structure to build a business and a better life for their children.

The couple opened the Mayflower Grill in Downtown Salisbury — the restaurant known for its good food and warm atmosphere.

While the restaurant eventually closed in 1960, three years after the death of Spyros, Salisburians still share stories about their meals and conversations with the Sarbanes family at the Mayflower Grill.

Martina and Spyros Sarbanes raised three solid children — two boys and a girl. As an immigrant family, they knew the meaning of hard work. In their children, they instilled the value of service and a work ethic that was obvious to all. The Sarbanes children grew up waiting tables, washing dishes and mopping floors in the restaurant. Through the family business, they learned the value of education and developed an understanding of people.

His brother, Tony, shared some memories this week the day after his brother passed.

“He was a standout basketball and baseball player at Wi-Hi. Sam Seidel coached him in basketball and from that developed a very strong friendship,” Sarbanes said.

“He was the shortstop on the baseball team and led the team in hitting for two years. He batted left, but threw right. I used to tease him about batting left because it put him closer to first by some 18 inches or so — that helped his batting average.”

The brother recalled that in 1950 the future Senator was one of three local graduates who were accepted into Princeton University, “which was unheard of back then.”

“The other two were Bill Morris, the son of the Salisbury Times Editor Oscar Morris, and John Culver,” Sabanes recalled “All three graduated. John became a banker in Cleveland, Ohio, Bill became the President of Lifesaver, but died rather young.

“And then there is Paul, who was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and then Harvard Law School.”

With Paul Sarbanes as a member in his senior year, the Wi-Hi team went to the state finals in basketball and lost by a single point under Coach Seidel.

Sarbanes also played on Princeton’s Ivy League basketball team, but never started, the brother said.

History notes that Sarbanes was not the first U.S. Senator from WIcomico County. That accolade goes to William P. Jackson of Salisbury, who served 1912-1914.

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