'Officer John,' 43 years on the beat, holds place in Highlandtown's heart

October 07, 1991|By Roger Twigg

When 70-year-old John P. Boyter takes his daily stroll along Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, most folks take notice -- even though he's been a fixture there for 43 years.

Some call him the "caretaker of the avenue," or "Mr. Highlandtown." To neighborhood kids, he's the nice man who carries lollipops for them inside his hat.

But most just greet him with "Hi, Officer John." That's because John Boyter is a policeman -- a Baltimore police officer who began his career in 1948, when Harry S. Truman was president, streetcars still traced through the city and a cup of coffee cost 5 cents.

He is the oldest officer on the city police force, and Baltimore police officials say he may be the oldest foot patrolman in the country.

"He can outwork all those young pups out there," said Lt. Philip C. Farace, who headed the security force at Memorial Stadium, where Officer Boyter occasionally worked during Orioles games. "He's strong as a bull and does his job."

Ed Sacks, owner of the Coral Rest Pet Shop on Eastern Avenue, describes the Highlandtown foot patrolman as "the best around."

"He seems to be there every day," says Mr. Sacks. "I'd put him up against the younger guys in a heartbeat."

Indeed, while 5-foot-10 inch, 223-pound Officer Boyter acknowledges he may no longer be able to chase down crooks the way he once did, he says knowledge of his beat built up over four decades in the Southeastern District more than make up for the lack of speed afoot.

Lt. Frank Melcavage, the administrative lieutenant in the Southeastern, agrees that experience of the kind that Officer Boyter has acquired over the years can often give an older police officer the edge he or she needs to survive on the street.

"Some of the older guys in the department get in fewer physical confrontations because of their knowledge of the street," says Lieutenant Melcavage. "They know how to handle the situation without resorting to that."

Officer Boyter says that aside from the six commendations that he has received, he is proudest that he has never had to fire his service revolver in the line of duty.

"I nearly shot a 17-year-old boy who broke into a tavern years ago," he said. "I'm glad I didn't."

Officer Boyter joined the city police department on March 11, 1948.

Over the years, Officer Boyter says, he has become more than just Highlandtown's police officer. "I have to listen to people's problems," he says. "I guess I'm a counselor at times."

He said he has been offered less physically demanding administrative jobs but has always turned them down.

"I'd go crazy inside," Officer Boyter says. "I want to work the streets. I enjoy talking to people and seeing little kids' eyes light up when I give them a lollipop."

Several years ago he and a number of other officers filed suit to prevent mandatory retirements at the age of 60. Under current policy, police officers can continue to serve until they are deemed unable physically to perform their duties.

Now, figuring himself perhaps "a year or two" from retirement, the 70-year-old policeman who prefers lollipops to guns savors each day pounding his beat "on the avenue."

"Where else can you get paid for exercising and meeting people?" he asks. "I eat a big breakfast of ham and eggs; then I walk it off."

Steve George, co-owner of Haussner's Restaurant, said, "John will be on the avenue forever. We need 1,000 more guys like him."

More than four decades after he first put on his badge, Officer Boyter wonders where the time went. "Those 43 years went real quick," he says. "I don't want to retire yet. I feel I can still do the job."

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