If you have a strong arm and a small stone you could probably throw it from where Bill Offutt grew up in the 1930s to where he taught high school in the 1980s to where his family and friends celebrated his funeral Mass on Monday morning. It’s a compact pocket of downtown Bethesda, on East-West Highway near Wisconsin Avenue.
William M. Offutt, who died on Dec. 31 at age 91, literally wrote the book on Bethesda. He published it, too, and used to sell it from a table at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market, next to the pies and jams. It’s called “Bethesda: A Social History” and on Monday a copy of it was among the photos and other ephemera of Offutt’s life displayed at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
“We called it the telephone directory,” his widow, Eda, told me.
It’s as thick as a phone book: 783 pages, down from the thousand or so in Offutt’s first draft. When you really love the history of a place, you tend not to want to skimp. Offutt interviewed more than 200 people for his book and pored through countless newspaper articles.
“I just wished I had started sooner,” Offutt told a Post reporter in 1995, when the first edition came out. “Many people I would have wanted to interview had died, or their memories were faulty. It’s a good thing I was able to hear most of their stories and record them for future generations.”
Of course, Offutt had experienced a lot of Bethesda’s history himself. Offutt’s family home was cater-cornered from Our Lady of Lourdes, where he went to elementary school. He went to St. John’s for high school, before heading to college at the University of Maryland, graduating in 1954.
He taught history and English in Montgomery County Public Schools, retiring in 1989 from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, which is a block from where his childhood home once stood.
Offutt is an old Maryland family name. The index to the book lists 19 Offutts, from “Offutt, Anna Lyles” to “Offutt, Winsor.” Offutt could trace his family back to the Revolution. One ancestor was Robert Peter, the first mayor of Georgetown.
His wife — nee Eda Barthel Schrader — told me her family arrived in “only” 1848.
“He used to refer to me as the immigrant,” she said on Monday.
They met when Bill was 17 and she was 15. He’d stayed around after a New Year’s Eve party to help clean up. That made him “a keeper,” she said. They were married for 69 years and raised three children — William Jr., Katherine and Caroline — in the Bethesda house they bought in 1957.
I spoke to Bill Offutt a few times, most memorably in 2021 after I wrote a column about a 1945 plane crash in Bethesda. Two Navy pilots had been pulling stunts when one aircraft collided with the other. One pilot was able to land, the other plane came down in a vacant lot after the pilot bailed out.
Bill was 14 at the time and managed to grab his Brownie camera and snap a photo of the burning wreckage before military personnel chased him off.
The crash made such an impression that when Offutt was working on his book, he managed to track down both pilots and interview them.
“They were playing,” Offutt told me. “They were young pilots with great, big, fast airplanes, and they were having a wonderful time.”
For Offutt, a wonderful time included talking about Montgomery County. Matt Logan, head of Montgomery History, told me the historical society’s speakers’ bureau was basically created for Offutt, who gave more than 200 lectures — with slides. (No PowerPoint for him.)
Offutt’s magnum opus was dedicated, in part, to the first graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, a man named John Adair who died in 1941, struck by a car while fighting a fire at the school.
“I wanted to dedicate the book to him because he was just an ordinary Bethesda citizen who died doing something heroic,” Offutt said.
In his own way, Bill Offutt lived doing something heroic: capturing the big history of a small place.
Montgomery History, the group Offutt devoted so much time to, will present its annual history conference Jan. 21 through 28. It’s online this year, with presentations that include a keynote on the story of immigration in the county. In 1850, fewer than two percent of Montgomery residents were foreign-born. Today, the figure is about one-third.
Other sessions touch on historic preservation, racial housing covenants and the county’s agricultural history.
For more information, visit montgomeryhistory.org.