A Sweet Mission Of Mercy

May 25, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Can doughnuts save the poor souls of Baltimore?

Johnny X thinks they might.

Upon that belief, he has given away thousands of them.

"Our government should feed the American people first -- the poor unfortunate souls who sit on them broke down steps and call it home. Don't starve 'em!" declares John Stackowitz, whose middle name is Xavier, from which the X is taken.

"And that don't stand for 'x-cess' baggage!"

But it could stand for extra sweet and extremely sticky, like the 35 dozen doughnuts bouncing around in the back of Johnny's 1987 Chevrolet wagon while he made a recent morning run, the fragrance of honey dips, chocolate glazed and Boston cremes churning in the sun as he careened toward Arbutus.

"I get everything for free," says Johnny, 75, wheeling through a wide intersection en route to South West Emergency Services on Maple Avenue. "And I run all over the damn place giving it away."

In an egg crate alongside the doughnuts are his philanthropic files: a receipt from the American Rescue Workers mission on West Baltimore Street for 30 dozen doughnuts; an invoice for six cases of milk and juice, eight gallons of lemonade and a box of bread delivered to South West Emergency Services; and a note of gratitude from the sugar-and-jelly smitten police of the Southwestern District, who enjoyed free doughnuts one snowy morning last winter courtesy of you-know-who.

Who is this Mister Doughnut of mercy?

He's the kind of character who says "Jiminy Christmas" when he's surprised and ends phone calls with: "Double-O Seven, signing off."

A guy who gives out business cards identifying himself as "Johnny X: The Poor Man's DJ" but only provides music -- everything from polkas to Tony Bennett -- at a weekly shuffleboard league.

A self-styled ladies' man whose first wife, Mary, ran off years ago with some guy she met in boxer Red Burman's saloon; whose second wife, Alice, died in 1990 ("I hope and pray I can find one just like her"); and whose current sweetheart is also named Alice.

But above all, John Xavier Stackowitz is a proud veteran of World War II, a Good Conduct Medal winner who served with the Army in Panama, helping to protect the canal.

Part of a soon-to-be-gone generation that came of age when the United States triumphed over the world -- and tends to think the country has gone downhill ever since -- Johnny rarely goes out without his "World War II Veteran" cap pinned with the American flag.

The hat leaves his head only when he eats, sleeps, pays a bill in person, is greeting a woman or asks a favor of a stranger. "Out of respect," says Johnny, who, in July, will take over as commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3217. "Respect is something lost in this country."

Johnny's face is a kindly pink mug, his thin hair as white as snow and his eyes droopy and a pale, watery blue. He sports a tattoo on each forearm -- a kewpie doll on the right and, on the left, the words: "Mother and Father -- True Love" and his older brother Frank's name above the words: "Killed in Action, Feb. 8, 1945."

Born on Gough Street in East Baltimore, Johnny is the son of Polish immigrants who spent their summers living in shacks outside of Aberdeen so they could make a few extra nickels shucking corn. He's dabbled in television repair, worked in garages and, for a while in the 1950s, tended bar at Frank Malinowski's gin mill at Gough and Ann streets. Today, he survives on Social Security and a pension from his days standing stowaway watch on foreign ships docked in Baltimore.

"I didn't miss nothing," he boasts.

Johnny's day starts before 7 a.m. when he leaves his Baltimore Highlands apartment to pick up the goodies -- juice, milk, bread, yogurt and sometimes eggs along with the doughnuts -- from good-hearted bakers and supermarket managers.

His doughnut gig began last Christmas when a VFW friend sent Johnny to see Steve Fogler, owner of Fogler's Bakery on Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn.

For years, Mr. Fogler had an employee deliver unsold leftovers to missions and shelters. The man was killed in a traffic accident, and the practice lapsed until Johnny X showed up to fill the void. Ever since, he has hauled away 10 to 40 dozen doughnuts a day, six days a week.

"John's just a guy that likes to look out for other people," said Mr. Fogler, 38. "He's somebody looking for somebody to thank him."

And they can't thank him enough at South West Emergency Services.

"This is one of them places you go when you don't have anything," says Johnny, his personality way out in front of a grocery cart loaded with 35 dozen doughnuts, as he enters the center at Arbutus United Methodist Church.

"Help yourself!" he cries, smiling and flirting. "I've got plenty!"

From the back, volunteer Lois Smedley watches Johnny work the room with amusement and respect. "We didn't have stuff like this to give away before John started coming around," she says. "Families need the staples -- if John didn't bring bread, we wouldn't have bread to give away -- but if we can send doughnuts home to treat the kids, that's a good thing too."

In his khaki work pants, mustard yellow shirt, suspenders and black work shoes, Johnny blushes like a schoolboy before heading to his next stop.

"I like to keep moving," he says, pulling his Chevy off the parking lot. "If you spend too much time in that recliner, it shortens your life."

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