Goodbye, Mimi

August 10, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

At the altar was a bishop, and in the loft a choir. The governor was standing with the mayor, senators and a congressman. There were people all dressed up inside the church, and people in jeans and T-shirts crowded respectfully outside. There was back-slapping and story-swapping.

Mimi would have loved it.

At Our Lady of Pompei Church in Highlandtown yesterday, they gathered for the funeral of former City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, who died Friday at 89. Along Conkling Street, from the funeral parlor to the church, his neighbors stood outside their rowhouses to pay tribute.

From 1966 until 1991, Mr. DiPietro, a political institution in a double-knit suit, represented Baltimore's 1st District.

"No one was too small for Mimi," said the Very Rev. Luigi Esposito, who helped Bishop John H. Ricard officiate at the Mass of Christian Burial. "No need was too minuscule."

Yesterday, a phalanx of police officers on motorcycles escorted his coffin, decorated with a spray of orchids by his wife, Frances, from the rowhouses of Highlandtown to the cemetery.

Outside the church, generations of politicians and old neighbors greeted each other as if they were gathering at a reunion: the governor shaking hands with old council colleagues; the mayor chatting with East Baltimore neighbors; former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns hugging 6th District Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi.

Inside the church, there were a few tears but much laughter as guests told stories about the little Italian-born steel worker who personified old-fashioned precinct politics. It wasn't pretty, they said. But it got the job done.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer stood in the pulpit and said he imagined meeting Mr. DiPietro again one day at the entrance to heaven. "Mimi, you'll open up the door and say, 'Hey! Get in here.' "

That was how Mr. DiPietro talked. He was loud and politically incorrect. His comments were sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic. He called ethnic groups by names that begin fistfights. He couldn't be persuaded that there was anything wrong with that.

And in his mangled English he yelled at mayors and governors, if that's what it took for him to get what he wanted.

"It really is an end to a whole era," said 1st District Councilman Perry Sfikas, who was elected in 1991, when Mr. DiPietro lost his last bid for re-election. "And it was a good era."

Mr. DiPietro couldn't have cared less about formulating public policy. He went to City Hall to be sure the potholes got fixed, the alleys were cleaned and the voters -- at least the Democratic voters -- got jobs.

He bragged about working hard and criticized colleagues he thought weren't putting enough time into their jobs.

Mr. Burns spent 15 years on the City Council with his office next to Mr. DiPietro's. "He'd chastise his secretary if she answered TC the phone while he was there," Mr. Burns remembered. "He said he was the one who should be talking to the people, not her."

But even young politicians, with their college degrees and media savvy, appreciated the way he charged around his district.

"He had a different approach to the problems of urban policy than I'd learned in graduate school," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, his 1st District council colleague from 1971 to 1976. She learned from him the importance of clean alleys and filled potholes; he learned from her the importance of community groups.

"He believed the best social program was a job," Ms. Mikulski said. "Most of all, I came to have an enormous admiration and affection for him."

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke recalled the time Mr. DiPietro burst into his office, shouting that the mayor had to come to Patterson Park immediately to inspect a slash some vandal had put in the tent roof of the Mimi DiPietro ice rink.

Mr. Schmoke, who said he'd never seen the councilman so agitated, stopped what he was doing and followed Mr. DiPietro downstairs.

"And he drove me over to Patterson Park. . . ." Mr. Schmoke said, pausing theatrically for the roar of laughter that filled the church. It was clear that Mr. DiPietro's unusual driving style was legendary.

"It was then I learned that, to Mimi, red lights were only advisory in nature," Mr. Schmoke said.

But he also remembered Mr. DiPietro, who never finished elementary school, attending the Dunbar High School graduation and telling the graduates, "I got to the City Council with my fifth-grade education. No telling where you can go with yours."

The next year, Dunbar honored him with a diploma.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who served on the City Council with Mr. DiPietro and now leads the Congressional Black Caucus, said he and Mr. DiPietro had different political agendas but got along anyway.

"Mimi just wanted to make sure you were a man of your word," Mr. Mfume said. "It didn't matter if you agreed with him."

People laughed at his malapropisms, Senator Mikulski said. Many didn't know he spoke several Italian dialects, plus some Greek, a little German and some Polish -- all of which he used in dealing with his constituents.

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