After joyous dancing at City Hall, Pressman waltzes into the sunset

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 01, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Try to remember Hyman Pressman dancing. Fred Astaire, he wasn't quite. Gene Kelly, he never would be. But a wallflower, not on your life.

Try to remember Hyman Pressman dancing on some election evening in his prime: all the night long, pretty new ladies with every song, the music blaring through some big political hall and the cigarette smoke billowing and the smell of raunchy cold cuts in the place, and the comptroller of Baltimore never wanting to leave.

It wasn't just a style on a dance floor, it was a way of living a life: with energy, with lack of self-consciousness, and mostly with joy. And that was it, wasn't it? The joy. It was usually corny, it was often contrived, but this little guy, the self-proclaimed watchdog of the city's money, the man with the irrevocable poetic license, will be taking his leave of office shortly after Election Day in November with a history of joyous dancing in public behind him.

Hyman Pressman was a poem composed on an adding machine. We now find ourselves in the closing days of a dreary city election campaign, the first that Pressman has missed in 28 years, and every day is a reminder that the music has faded and that politics is now waged by cautious people with the souls of accountants.

Hyman Pressman had the role of an accountant but the soul of a carnival barker. At 77, the years have taken their toll, but for a long time in this city, he gave a sense of the fun that could be found in the life of government.

A self-promoter? Of course. This is the guy who installed special lights in his City Hall office, to make it easier for the TV people to get him on the air. This is the guy who offered to run the bases at Memorial Stadium, at age 62, then slide into home plate. But you could break your leg, he was warned.

''What's a broken leg,'' Pressman said, ''when you get all that applause?''

You want applause? The mind goes back to the mid-1960s, to a Baltimore Colts-Chicago Bears football game here. The Bears' substitutes are all standing along the sidelines, instead of sitting on the bench. In the first several rows of the lower deck along the first base line, it becomes difficult to see over the players' heads to the action on the field. Someone mentions this to Pressman, who is wandering through the stands.

In an instant, Pressman bolts over a banister and onto the sideline turf. Now he's confronting George Halas, the legendarily grizzled coach of the Bears. Get your players to sit down, Pressman says. Get this guy off my back, Halas cries. The crowd roars.

This Hyman Pressman was the guy with a poem for every occasion, delivered in a voice like rusty plumbing. Try to remember.

A taxpayers meeting in January 1976:

With unemployment and steep inflation

We just can't stand unfair taxation

Taxes milk dry, you'll have to allow

And overassessment kills the cow.

Do what you want 'neath City Hall's dome

But do not overassess my home.

When Tommy D'Alesandro the younger prepared to become mayor in December 1967:

Tommy will make a wonderful skipper

Lady Luck's with him and he won't trip 'er.

If things go wrong,

We won't worry long.

We'll just fast during Lent and Yom Kippur.

Not everybody loved him. Some politicians resented his publicity power plays. But they missed a fundamental fact about Pressman: He wasn't tied to any organization. His only hope was going directly to the voters.

And it wasn't all showmanship. He was pushing for a state lottery for at least a decade before the state created one. He pushed for a state-operated insurance fund for high-risk drivers long before such a law was enacted. He was an early visionary of the food bazaar at Hopkins Plaza.

And always, there were the money issues: Pressman pushing for cleaner methods of awarding consulting contracts, Pressman holding court at Board of Estimates meetings, questioning ''official'' trips around the country, overtime payments, non-bid contracts.

''Never take anything for granted,'' Pressman said one afternoon four years ago, in the midst of what would be his final election campaign.

''What do you mean?'' a reporter asked.

''Years ago,'' said Pressman, ''it's the end of a long election day, and I see an old man I've known for years. I said, 'How are you? You voted for me, didn't you?' 'No sir,' he said. 'I didn't.' I said, 'What? But you're my old friend.' And he said, 'Mr. Pressman, you didn't ask me.' ''

In his office, Pressman leaned back and let the message sink in for a moment. ''People,'' he said, ''don't want to be taken for granted.''

For a long time around here, that's how Hyman Pressman lived his public life: embracing strangers and not taking them for granted, wooing them with his poetry and listening for their applause, and dancing through the nights as though he never wanted to go home.

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