John Sherwood, a teller of stories, oral and written, whose subjects ranged from a strolling accordion player in suburban Washington to a Chesapeake Bay skipper whose misguided attempt to stay warm sparked a fire on his hair, his coat and his boat, died Dec. 7 at a care center in Millersville, Md. He was 84.
The cause was colon cancer, said a son, Scott Sherwood.
Mr. Sherwood was a former feature writer and columnist for the old Washington Star and for a variety of sailing and boating magazines. He was author of “Maryland’s Vanishing Lives” (1994), which profiled men and women whose jobs and ways of life were fast headed toward obsolescence.
“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,” Winston Groom, a friend and Star colleague, wrote in an appreciation. Groom, the author of the novel “Forrest Gump,” recently purchased Mr. Sherwood’s Sailmaster sloop, Erewhon, which he sails in Alabama’s Mobile Bay.
Mr. Sherwood worked at the Star from 1962 until the afternoon paper folded in 1981. He was one of the writers of the Rambler, a column known for profiles of local people and places.
“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 . . . who likely never dreamed they were important enough to decorate the pages of a big city newspaper,” Groom wrote in his appreciation.
While at the Star, Mr. Sherwood became an enthusiastic sailor, an avocation that became an obsession, Scott Sherwood said. A year before his death, Mr. Sherwood continued to ply the Chesapeake alone on his boat. He swapped and wrote stories about the bay and its denizens at formal and impromptu gatherings and was widely known in the community of Chesapeake watermen.
John Sherwood, the son of a physician, was born in Baltimore on Nov. 9, 1932. He attended several colleges, including the University of Maryland, and served in the Army in South Korea during the years after the Korean War. He joined the Baltimore Sun in 1960.
After the Star ceased publication, he moved to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and then to the Miami Herald, returning to the Washington area in the late 1980s and to his home in Severna Park, Md., where he lived until moving to the care facility three months ago.
From the 1990s until earlier this year, he wrote a monthly column, Bay Tripper, for the boating magazine Soundings.
His wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Cronin, whom he married in 1956, died in 2000. A son, Eric Sherwood, died on Aug. 3. Survivors include two sons, Mark Sherwood, a State Department officer stationed in Bangkok, and Scott Sherwood of Washington; and a granddaughter.
While with the Star in 1978, Mr. Sherwood tried to interview the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of the “The Catcher in the Rye.” Mr. Sherwood introduced himself as Salinger stepped out of his car near his home in Cornish, N.H.
“Get out of here,” Salinger snarled.
“It was the closest I would ever get to one of my teenage heroes, Holden Caulfield,” Mr. Sherwood wrote in a letter to The Washington Post on the occasion of Salinger’s death in 2010. “The result of this five-second interview resulted in the longest story I ever wrote for the Star in my nearly 20 years there.”
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