2 old guard cops leave the beat

March 12, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

Down on Fort Avenue and Light Street, they used to call him "Mr. Frank." He was the brawny ex-Marine in the ankle-length coat who came over for Christmas dinner, broke up the neighborhood fights and walked folks home from the corner tavern when they had too much to drink.

"People knew if they saw me taking somebody away to jail that they must of did something really wrong," says Officer Frank Wolchik, badge number 2020. "I was part of the family down there. People trusted me, and I trusted them."

Then came the aneurysm and the blood clots in his right leg. Too many cold nights standing out on the corner. Too much coffee and too many cigarettes. The doctors had to cut off the bad leg. And Officer Wolchik couldn't work the street anymore.

Yesterday, he retired from the Baltimore Police Department after almost four decades as a patrolman in the Southern District along with Sgt. Dave Bryant, a 31-year veteran who spent half his career defusing bombs "from Towson to Essex" and training rookie cops how to stay alive.

Heralded at a sausage and egg breakfast in the station house yesterday morning, the two cops are typical of the hundreds of officers who spend their working lives in the department without incident or applause and grudgingly return to the civilian world knowing that they will always be cops.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do with myself," said Sergeant Bryant, the father of two grown sons and a veteran of the bomb squad, K-9 unit and training academy. "After all these years as a police. I don't know. I'm going to go do some bass fishing and think about it."

Major Robert L. DiStefano, commander of the district, has his own problems.

"I have a lot of young officers around here, and every time they get around Frank or Dave it's a learning experience," he said. "Dave knows every thief and burglar in the district, plus he's got a lot of technical knowledge about weapons and tactics. And Frank is a walking encyclopedia about the neighborhoods and people down here.

"We're losing well over 70 years of experience."

The two cops accept such compliments with some embarrassment and practice a police officer's habit of spreading credit, ticking off the names of long-departed veterans who taught them the ropes and covered their backs.

"Good people," says Sergeant Bryant. "You don't get through this many years without their help."

Then, they quickly change the subject to something less personal, recounting the incidents and calls that make up a peace officer's memories and provide his risks and rewards.

Bomb scare

Sergeant Bryant, 53, recalls a night two decades ago when a nervous young federal agent showed up at the Inner Harbor with an explosive device in his trunk that he had just bought from a suspect in a bomb-making ring.

"He was scared to death of the thing," Sergeant Bryant said. "All he knew was that if he pulled this string he had so many minutes to get out of the way before it went off. I took it out onto Pier 5 and disarmed it.

"It was terrifying because there was a major thunderstorm, the lightning was all around us, and we didn't know if it had an electrical fuse or what. I had a lot of nights like that. And I had a lot of friends in other departments get blown up.

9- "But we never lost anybody in Baltimore."

Community service

Officer Wolchik, 71, savors the distant memory of a woman who kissed his hand after he hauled her drunken husband into the street and warned the guy that if he didn't stop beating his wife and kids the big cop with the big mitts would personally throw him in jail.

"Nice lady, can't remember her name," Officer Wolchik says, rubbing his head. "But I'll never forget that day. She kissed my hand and thanked me for straightening out her husband. Apparently, he quit drinking after that and got back to being a family man.

"It probably doesn't sound like much, but that's the way it was. You were part of people's lives."

His daughter, Gerrie Dolinger, 34, remembers visiting her dad at work as a child and being surprised that "everybody in the neighborhood knew my dad."

"One time, this lady parked her car half out into the street, and it was blocking traffic," she said. "Instead of writing her a ticket, he went up with one of the neighbors and pushed the car out of the way.

"That's the way him and his friends were. Old-school cops. They thought their first job was to help people."

'A matter of money'

But that was long ago, the two veterans say, before police moved out of the neighborhood and into patrol cars, before the department's standards started to slip and City Hall began stripping away money for training, equipment and new officers.

They fondly recall Police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau, who ran his department with an iron hand from 1966 to 1981, fending off the politicians and whipping his officers into one of the best police units in the nation.

And they both pray for a return to those days under newly appointed Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

"He's saying a lot of the right things -- things that we haven't heard in this department for a long time," Sergeant Bryant said. ++ "Whether he can get the backing he needs from the city is the question. It's always a matter of money.

"It's never been a matter of the officers. They'll always do the best they can with whatever you give them."

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