John Pica's life: Deeds of splendor, moments of mirth

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 22, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

John Pica? They should put his story in a movie, only who would believe it? Maybe those 800 people at Martin's Eastwind the other night to pay tribute to Pica who witnessed some of this stuff in the first place but, hell, who's gonna believe them?

There's all that stuff from the war, and from Harry Truman and Tommy D'Alesandro. There's the City Hall cherry bomb incident, not to mention the weeping high school girl made instantly happy, and the Jewish guy made instantly Catholic, but who's gonna believe this unless you know John Pica?

The Jewish guy? His name was Bobby Polanski, of Brooklyn, N.Y. He and Pica got captured by the Germans in the Italian town of Cassino during World War II.

"They'll kill me," Polanski whispered, "for being Jewish."

"Not any more you ain't," said Pica, thinking fast. "Throw them dog tags away."

Then Pica took off his own dog tags and slipped them around Polanski's neck.

"You're Catholic now," said Pica. "Only . . ."

"Only what?"

"Only, you better learn to say the Our Father."

Don't believe it? It's in the war records, along with some other stuff: Pica's twice being a prisoner of war, and twice escaping; his three Bronze Stars, his Silver Star, his three Purple Hearts.

Of course, there was also that business from V-J Day. By then, Pica's been shipped home and finds himself back in Little Italy when peace arrives. Naturally, being shy and retiring, he and some buddies steal a coffin from the Della Noce Funeral Home, dress up a guy from the neighborhood named George Ferretti to look like Hitler, and parade the open coffin through the streets.

Only, the coffin closes and locks. So now they have to get an undertaker to open it, whereupon poor Ferretti bolts like a rocket. So somebody swipes a white horse, and they dress a guy like Uncle Sam to ride it, and everybody goes dancing along Pratt Street.

After the war, two things happen: Pica marries Antoinette Pellegrini, and their 40-year marriage produces the daughter, Maria, and the son, John Jr., who is now a state legislator.

Also, Pica becomes Tommy D'Alesandro's aide. In the late '40s, Tommy the Elder's in the U.S. Congress, and likes to bring various VIPs to Baltimore. Once, he calls Pica and says, "I'm bringing in Truman. Get us at the train station."

From Truman, who was then president, Pica knows nothing. And anyway, John's in the middle of a high-level dice game on the corner.

"So," he remembers the other night, "at the last minute I ask George Daragro can I borrow his car. 'Sure,' he says, 'only it got burned out the other night.' So we put in some fruit crates for seats, and we pick up Truman at Camden Station. D'Alesandro says, 'You're crazy.' I said, 'It's all we got.'

"We bring Truman back to Little Italy on this fruit crate, and Tommy says, 'Get another car.' I go down to the Della Noce, right? Jerry the owner says, 'You got Truman? He's the vice president.' I thought he was kidding. So he puts on a tuxedo and we drive Truman around in a hearse."

In 1955, Pica lands in the City Council. At his testimonial, everybody praised his love of people. Pica simply mentioned a cherry bomb, which he tossed down a stairwell at City Hall one night to liven things up.

See, that's the thing about Pica. He'll be 70 soon, and he's retiring as the city's assistant chief of highway maintenance, but he's got the playful heart of a kid.

"Parents today raise their children to go after the career," Maria Pica says. "We were raised to go after the character."

She remembered the night of her high school senior prom, when her date canceled at the last hour.

"And I'm crying in my room," Maria remembers, "when the most handsome man in the world walks in. Dad, in a tuxedo. He tells me to put on my prom dress. We go downstairs, and Buddy Palughi's waiting out front with a limousine, and they rode me around and asked, 'Where do you want to eat?' I said, 'Gino's.'

"It was wonderful. And then my father took me home and put on some records, and we danced all night. That's my father." When Maria married Douglas Dean, she took his last name. Three years ago, she asked him, "Would you mind if I take my father's name back?"

"No," said her husband. "I wish I could take it, too."

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