Death of 'Mimi' DiPietro closes a chapter in old-time Baltimore politics

August 07, 1994|By Darren M. Allen and Albert Sehlstedt | Darren M. Allen and Albert Sehlstedt,Sun Staff Writers

Of all the praise pouring his way yesterday from every corner of official Baltimore, Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro -- a legendary East Baltimore city councilman who died Friday night at 89 -- probably would find none of it as satisfying as a simple recollection from Deritha Grove.

"Mimi? He's been to my house," the 51-year-old Highlandtown woman said yesterday a block from the Claremont Street house the councilman lived in for nearly 85 years. "I had a problem. He got it fixed."

Fixing people's problems is what Mr. DiPietro did in his 25-year career representing the city's 1st District, but on Friday night, he succumbed to a problem that even he couldn't fix.

His wife of 28 years, the former Frances Elizabeth Promutico, brought him to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center about seven weeks ago as Alzheimer's disease and liver cancer began to take their toll, she said yesterday.

He died in a coma about 11 p.m., hours after she and Mr. DiPietro's longtime priest -- Father Luigi "Lou" Esposito, pastor of Our Lady of Pompei Roman Catholic Church -- prayed over him.

"My husband should be remembered as one of the old-time men, a man who devoted his life for the people," Mrs. DiPietro said. "He didn't care what race you were, and it didn't matter what time it was. Whatever was needed, he did it."

Mr. DiPietro, sometimes referred to as the "unofficial mayor of Highlandtown," was one of the more colorful City Council members who practiced politics in a proven way: A public servant's response to the voters' needs is the name of the game.

Running for re-election in 1983, the ordinarily voluble candidate summed up his political success in 69 words, an accomplishment some academicians can barely squeeze into a textbook.

"I know how to do my job," Mr. DiPietro said. "I do it honestly, sincerely and I help everybody who needs help.

"Yes, I got a big mouth," he added. "If you got it coming to you, I'll give it to you. But I'll help you. That's one thing. I'll represent you, and I'll try to help you. And I think this is the kind of elected official that I like to see elected."

The voters of the district delivered him to City Hall in 1966 and kept returning him until 1991, when a changing political wind swept him and other old-time ward politicians out of office.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- whose administration is anything but old-time -- said yesterday that Mr. DiPietro "was a true American original. I think they threw away the mold after they made Mimi. He loved his constituents, and that was reflected in everything he did."

A troubled child, an unemployed father, a woman who needed transportation to an eye clinic, or ugly weeds growing between the cracks of the sidewalk on Eastern Avenue were the details of Mr. DiPietro's typical day. A visitor to his City Hall office once remarked that the telephone never stopped ringing.

"You could make a book [about the calls from constituents], and you'd have the greatest book in the world," he observed on one occasion.

At that time, he was working at his City Hall office on a steamy July afternoon in 1989, even though he was supposed to be on vacation. "I'm 84 years old," he said, "and I'm as healthy as a [expletive] mule. . . . It's my life."

Mr. DiPietro did take an occasional break from his job. For more than 30 years, he and some of his buddies would take two weeks and travel to World Series games.

"Almost everywhere we went, we ran into friends who knew Mimi," said Bud Paolino, a longtime friend who owns Enrico's Sports Bar and Cafe, the successor to DiPietro haunt Bud Paolino's Crab House.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, one of four mayors under whom Mr. DiPietro served, called him "the end of an era. Mimi could say things to people that from anyone else would sound offensive, and they loved him for it. He was my good and loyal friend, and it really saddens me to see the passing of a truly unique and great man."

Mr. DiPietro -- an elementary school dropout who found new and creative ways to put the English language to work -- was a constant source of amusement to his colleagues and the public.

In one campaign he was discussing his war chest, which had exceeded $41,000, far more than any other councilmanic candidate. He explained to reporters: "I'm the most populist one. That's why you see that." Then he added: "I'm going to spend every damn nickel of it."

"He was the kind of guy who could make you laugh, the kind of guy who didn't think too much before he spoke," said Nicholas D'Adamo, a 36-year-old 1st District councilman who said he learned the art of making the city bureaucracy sing from Mr. DiPietro.

"To get anything done in this city, you need a three-way conference call. Get the department head on one line, you on the other, and the person you're helping on the third. When all the parties are on the phone, you do what he did: You yell and scream, and then the job gets done."

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