Charles W. Gilchrist, 62, a popular Democrat who was county executive of Montgomery County for eight years and then left politics to administer to the urban poor as an Episcopal priest, died of pancreatic cancer June 24 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
The former tax lawyer and Maryland state senator succeeded Republican James P. Gleason, who first held the post after Montgomery changed its style of governance in the early 1970s. But it was Gilchrist who came to be regarded by many as the model for top elected officials in the affluent county.
Gilchrist "set the standard for good government" in Montgomery's executive branch, said his friend and fellow Democratic activist Lou D'Ovidio, a County Council aide.
In an administration that began in 1978 and ended in 1986, Gilchrist plowed money into social services such as programs for the mentally ill, a foreshadowing of his work in church. He also worked to build housing for the elderly poor and to unclog commuter roads.
At the same time, "he was opposed to government growing out of control," D'Ovidio said. "He was very, very careful to make sure that government was doing its job with only the resources it needed. . . . He was not your big government kind of guy."
It was a period of significant growth in county population, and Gilchrist went head to head with an adversarial County Council over establishing controls over an annual budget that had grown to more than $1 billion.
One effect of his efforts to control spending was that key departments were not expanded. His successor, Democrat Sidney Kramer, had to find ways to pay for additions to the county payroll.
At his own inauguration, Kramer praised Gilchrist for his "decency and humanity . . . strong leadership and competence," saying that he had headed one of the county's "most effective and popular governments."
The current county executive, Democrat Douglas M. Duncan, called Gilchrist a mentor and role model who had presided over "a period of tremendous change and progress" in the county. He credited Gilchrist with being "largely responsible for having established Montgomery County as one of the top high-technology centers in the world." He said he had left "an exceptional legacy of vision, service and caring."
Gilchrist once said in an interview that he had liked the public service aspects of the county executive's job, but otherwise found it "difficult, frustrating and often thankless."
His first administration temporarily was bogged down in allegations that aides had breached county personnel rules. The accusations centered on their having pressed for the appointment of a candidate close to the county executive as deputy director of the county liquor department.
Gilchrist also was faulted for permitting a former Schenley liquor salesman who was working in the liquor control department to buy liquor from his old employer.
After an 18-month controversy, dubbed by the media as "Liquorgate," Gilchrist was exonerated by an independent investigation. The affair came to be regarded largely as a tempest in a teapot. But at the time, it took its toll on Gilchrist, who briefly considered not seeking reelection.
He was easily returned to office for a second term, however, and began aggressively seeking more money for road and school construction.
Gilchrist had first come to office as a moratorium on land development was easing and growth was exploding. Tax-cutting fervor was gripping neighboring Prince George's County, and an initiative called TRIM threatened to do the same in Gilchrist's county.
Gilchrist tightened his reins on the government, firing several Gleason appointees and establishing the first county office of management and budget.
He used the increased tax revenue that was the product of the county's explosive growth to help encourage high-tech research firms to flock to Montgomery.
He got the state to increase its reimbursement to the county for public building projects. He expanded his office's influence over crucial development decisions, through state legislation granting the executive the right to appoint two of the five members of the independent county planning board. The county council previously had appointed all of the board's members.
The measure Gilchrist sponsored and the legislature passed also gave the county executive veto power over master plans, the basic planning tool used to map growth.
During his tenure, the the annual budget for family resources more than doubled, to about $14 million. Programs were established for child care, and the number of shelter beds for the homeless increased dramatically.
Gilchrist's family resources director, Charles L. Short, said in an interview that the county executive's first order to him was to "keep people from freezing and starving . . . and he never wavered.
"When we were sued or took heat over a shelter, he never called me in and said, 'Well, can we find another site?' "
Short said Gilchrist's administration was distinguished by his strong feeling that all people should have an opportunity to share in the affluence of Montgomery, one of the country's wealthiest counties.
When he left office at age 50, Gilchrist had endowed the county executive job with unprecedented political powers. He left a multimillion-dollar legacy of social services and public works projects.
The man he had defeated for the job in 1978, Republican Richmond M. Keeney, said Gilchrist had operated as a lightning rod for the county.
Gilchrist said in an interview with Washington Post staff writer R.H. Melton that he had accomplished nearly all that he had hoped for.
Melton wrote, "In many ways, Gilchrist's eight-year odyssey from his time as an insecure, even fumbling first-term executive to his recent ascension as Montgomery's leading Democratic power broker is as much a story of the county's profound changes as it is about the maturing of the man."
Considered a shoo-in for reelection in 1986, Gilchrist was expected to dominate county politics for decades. He was being touted for Congress or state office when he suddenly announced in 1984 that he planned to abandon politics.
He said that when his second term was up in 1986, he would study for the priesthood.
His years at the helm of the county had taken their toll, he said. Relationships with the seven members of the County Council were frequently adversarial, so much so that both branches of government hired lobbyists to advocate before the state legislature.
"One of the clues to Charlie's personality is that he takes any criticism of the government personally," council member and Gilchrist antagonist Esther P. Gelman said at the time.
More distressing than his relationship with the council, however, was the illness of his son Donald, who spent two years battling a brain tumor. After he recovered, Gilchrist said the illness had helped him turn in a more spiritual direction.
He wasn't rejecting the political scene, he added, but substituting one form of public service for another.
Charles Waters Gilchrist, the grandson of a Baptist minister, was tall and craggy, and his biographers delighted in describing him as looking like a churchman out of Dickens.
He was raised in Washington, where he attended St. Albans School for Boys and became involved in religious activities. After graduating magna cum laude from Williams College and receiving a law degree from Harvard University, he returned to the Washington-Baltimore area to practice tax law. He soon became involved in Democratic politics.
In the mid-1970s, he resigned as partner of a medium-size law firm in Washington to run successfully for the state Senate.
After Gilchrist left politics, his wife, Phoebe, took a full-time job as a corporate librarian to help put him through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
His first church assignment was at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Washington, where he worked with homeless people in the Hispanic community and helped immigrants deal with the government. He also helped raise money for St. Luke's House Inc., a mental health facility in Montgomery County that he had assisted as county executive.
His story, of a shift in career to a relatively low-paying profession, fascinated the media, and he was often interviewed about the change in his life.
In 1990, he told an interviewer: "People who have known me will see the collar and that says something to them, that I am a servant of God. They may not understand why I did it, but the fact is, I did.
"It's a very full life, I am happy and I have no regrets. I am very much doing what I should be doing, and what I want to be doing."
He and his wife sold their large Victorian home of 25 years in Rockville and moved to a grimy neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, where he took over as manager of the Cathedral Shelter for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.
The religious committee that picked Gilchrist regarded him as having the potential to be a bishop or head of a large parish, one member told a Chicago newspaper at the time. But Gilchrist said he was more interested in curing inner-city ills.
He returned to the Washington-Baltimore region in the mid-1990s to work on housing problems in the Sandtown neighborhood of central Baltimore, where he resettled. He had lived in that city early in his law career while working for the firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard.
He was director of operations for New Song ministry, which runs a Habitat for Humanity housing rehabilitation program and a church, school, health center and children's choir.
In 1997, Gilchrist was named to oversee a court settlement designed to move more than 2,000 black Baltimore public housing residents to mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis appointed him a special master in the suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland against Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In addition to his wife, of Baltimore, Gilchrist is survived by three children, Donald Gilchrist of Rockville, James Gilchrist of Annapolis, and Janet Gilchrist of Pinos Altos, N.M.; a sister, Janet Dickey of Reston; and two grandchildren.
CAPTION: Charles W. Gilchrist had resettled in the Sandtown area of Baltimore. There, he directed operations for New Song ministry, which runs a housing rehabilitation program.