As this year’s fishing season is upon us, I have been thinking of one of the Northern Neck’s most enthusiastic fisherman, Harry B. Dertzbaugh. Mr. D., as everyone knew him, was born in Frederick, Maryland, on May 23, 1876, the year of the American Centennial. After finishing his schooling, he entered the barbering trade during which time he contracted a brief, but unsuccessful marriage.
Thereafter, he moved to Washington where in 1904 he found a job in the Auditor’s Office of the Federal District Court, eight years later transferring to the Clerk’s Office, where he remained employed for the next 46 years until his death at 82 in 1958. His barbering past was not without its influence on him, as he always got a weekly haircut, with no frills. His hair turned brilliant white early in life, and he kept it tightly trimmed.
He had no formal training in legal matters, but he learned from his employment and became a recognized authority on civil and criminal procedure. Attorneys wanted him to file their briefs with the court, as they knew if the documents passed his muster, the court would accept them.
In every respect, neatness was important to him. In 1955 when Congress passed legislation requiring government employees to retire at age 70, he filed his papers, then immediately was re-hired as a contract employee, giving no indication to the legal community of the change in his status.
In a time of limited transportation opportunities, Mr. D. somehow found the Northern Neck. In the 1920s and 1930s he would come either by bus, or with a friend in the friend’s car, to Irvington, where he would spend his vacation in a boarding house, having prearranged fishing trips for every day he was in the area.
In those days of limited refrigeration opportunities, he had no way of taking the fish he caught back to Washington, but he would have the keeper of the boarding house prepare his catch to share with the other roomers. For him, the fun was in the catch. He did not visit historic sites or look for restaurants, his sole focus while here was on fishing.
All fishermen are known for their fish stories, but Mr. D.’s most interesting fish story is not about fish at all. He never learned to drive a car and he lived in a one-room apartment in Washington. He also did not cook, taking all of his meals at a small, hole-in-the-wall, café on Georgia Avenue, within walking distance of his apartment.
On weekends he would pack his fishing gear and hike up the Potomac to find a spot to sit and cast his line. One Saturday morning, as he was sitting on the riverbank, fishing pole in hand, a hiker jumped out of the woods, and asked, “Catching anything today?” Mr. D. turned around, and without missing a beat, replied, “Not today, Mr. President. Nothing seems to be biting.” The intruder replied, “Well, Good Luck!” and was off. The interloper was Theodore Roosevelt, who had escaped the Secret Service, and was enjoying one of his famous jaunts up the river.
Mr. D. died alone in his apartment a month past his 82nd birthday. The Washington legal community virtually shut down for his funeral in Frederick. Two federal judges were among his pallbearers. He was buried in the local cemetery, near the grave of Francis Scott Key, above whose tomb the Star-Spangled Banner flies day and night.
In an article following the probation of Mr. D.’s will, The Evening Star newspaper reported that the estate amounted to $80,000, in cash, then considered a large amount for a government employee to have amassed, the author of the article not being aware that the only luxury in which he had indulged had been fishing, and at least a good part of that was spent here in the Northern Neck.