By Deeply personal choice, Charles W. Gilchrist led two different lives, each an expression of his intense commitment to public service. Mr. Gilchrist, who died Thursday at the age of 62, announced to a startled constituency 13 years ago that he was forsaking his successful, still-promising political career in Montgomery County to become an Episcopal priest among the urban poor. As county executive, he had set a high standard for office in a sophisticated, demanding suburb where good government was a revered tradition.
Mr. Gilchrist was considered a shoo-in for reelection, a rising political star among Maryland Democrats. But a weariness with the political process, coupled with news that one of his sons had been found to have a brain tumor (it was to prove treatable), led him to leave a life of comfort for the stark surroundings of the homeless and desperate. Skeptics were to learn in time that this was no midlife-crisis move or gesture of political gimmickry. Mr. Gilchrist had enjoyed aspects of his job as county executive -- directing money to social services for the mentally ill, housing for the poor and opportunities for all people to share in the affluence of the county.
He was no stereotypical freewheeling big spender, though. He worried about government growing out of control, trimmed county departments and worked to increase the county tax base by encouraging the growth of high-tech research firms.
As a man of the cloth in West Side Chicago, Mr. Gilchrist worked in the shelters for years before returning to this region in the mid-'90s to work on housing in central Baltimore. Was this graduate of St. Albans, Williams College and Harvard Law School still satisfied with the life he and his wife now shared? "We're not doing this out of any sense we're martyrs," he said. "It's more that this is a more interesting, open way for us to develop, to be part of a struggling place with so much potential." There as well as in the more comfortable neighborhoods of Montgomery, Charlie Gilchrist left rich legacies.