Lest we forget, it was 25 years ago this week that we lost one of our great men of government, the Alistair Cooke of East Baltimore, the immortal Baltimore City Councilman Dominic “Mimi” DiPietro.
If there was a schoolyard or a street that needed cleaning, Mimi was all over it. If there was a family that needed help, Mimi was there. If there was an alley to be paved, you could call on Mimi.
And, never to be forgotten, if there was a grammar rule waiting to be broken, or the English language about to be tortured, you could count on Mimi.
After all, wasn’t it DiPietro who declared, “I have been to half a dozen political affairs lately, and each time I get a standing evasion.”
And wasn’t it Mimi who said the problem with the criminal courts was “too much flea bargaining.”
And wasn’t it Mimi who announced, the day after his brother’s intestinal operation, “My goodness, they must have pulled four feet of testicle out of that man.”
He was 89 when he died in August of 1994, leaving behind voters in Southeast Baltimore who elected him over and over because they knew his utmost priority was constituent service — and they delighted in his unintentional bending of history, and his wayward grammar, and his insistence that all politics was, indeed, local.
Such as the time President Jimmy Carter came to Baltimore and dined with Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Councilman DiPietro – and Mimi insisted on spending lunch telling the leader of the Free World, “Mister President, you gotta do something about them potholes in Highlandtown.”
Or the time, at a special White House gathering, when Mimi was introduced to Pope John Paul II, and called the spiritual leader of Catholicism, “Mister Pope.”
Or the time Mimi was introduced to First Lady Rosalyn Carter. Wishing to show himself a man of sophistication and gentility, Mimi told Mrs. Carter, “I’d kiss you on the mouth, but I don’t know who you been with.”
He was an elementary school dropout who fractured the language but didn’t let it get in the way of his only business: working full-time for his oft-troubled city.
He’d known his own tough times. Coming up in the Depression, he worked at Sparrows Point’s steel mills. He was a catcher’s helper. Driving through Southeast Baltimore one day, he remembered how tough the work was.
“We’d do 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off,” he said. “The heat was too much to go past 15 minutes. Iron and tin, you picked it off the rolls and threw it to the catcher with a pair of tongs. You had to wear a mask. I had burnt eyes, burnt cheeks, a burnt chin.”
That was his explanation for the hours he spent each day, as a councilman trying to get jobs for people who were out of work.
It’s a piece of Mimi’s story we should always recall – he was proud of his work, and proud of his city.
He showed this when he was interviewed by Ted Koppel, on ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” in a special program about the era’s great Baltimore renaissance. It happened, by chance, to be the week Mount St. Helens erupted.
“What makes Baltimore such a great city?” Koppel asked on national TV.
“‘Cause we ain’t got no volcanoes,” explained Mimi.
When he was appointed to a committee to build the statue of Christopher Columbus on the east side of the Inner Harbor, it was Mimi who looked at the original blueprints and complained that the statue didn’t seem to have fingers.
“What about the famous statue of the Venus de Milo?” he was asked. “She didn’t even have arms.”
“Don’t look at me,” Mimi said. “I wasn’t on that committee.”
He was an imperfect man who could be rough around the edges. But we should recall him with a telephone at his ear, trying to get somebody a job; or sitting with his pal, Mayor Clarence “Du” Burns, the two old eastside war horses in their twilight years, one black, one white, each understanding the need to cross old racial divisions; or Mimi sitting at his old pal Bud Paolino’s seafood restaurant, explaining his version of the whole wide world.
Such as the time he said, “I would never tell a lie. If I have to lie to you, I’ll deviate from you.”
That was Mimi. He didn’t have to deviate. He told it his way, and needed no translation.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).