DiPietro's heart, not his mouth, was in right place

August 11, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Looks like some of us, who listened to Mimi DiPietro make the air blue with words for the last 25 years or so, must have let it slip our collective minds that he said politically incorrect things about Jews and blacks and gays and Poles and women and, oh yeah, Italians.

But, thank goodness, Roger Simon's arrived, now that Mimi's dead, to bravely remind us.

Simon wrote a column in this newspaper yesterday saying that DiPietro, who died at 89 over the weekend, was being hailed and farewelled "to the exclusion of all other information [and] readers are locked out of the whole truth and cannot draw their own conclusions" -- conclusions which Simon reached, however, mainly by reading about DiPietro in this very newspaper.

Mimi DiPietro had this terrible inability to hide, to say one thing while secretly meaning another. The dumb Dago just couldn't do it!

Oops! Did somebody say Dago? Well, yeah, actually.

Mimi did.

Was he Italian? Yeah. Did he refer to himself, in public and private, as a dumb Dago? Well, yeah, but only constantly.

And, not only that, but he actually referred to Jews as . . . Are you ready for this? He referred to Jews as . . .


Yes! I heard him do it. Roger Simon knew about it, too. He read about it in this newspaper seven years ago when DiPietro attached the word "rich" to the word "Jews" and said Kurt L. Schmoke was hanging around "Jew Town."

What Simon missed was the telephone call to DiPietro the next morning, from an old friend -- a Jew! must have been a self-hater! -- named Irv Kovens, and the tough political boss, hooting with laughter, said, "You dumb Dago!"

"I know, I know," said DiPietro.

He knew, because people who saw the story in the paper were telling him: You can't talk that way, it isn't nice. And Mimi looked at them in confusion, because he still didn't get it right away, that we're not supposed to isolate people by race or religion or gender in any way that hints we don't like them.

Schmoke was running for mayor against Mimi's pal, Clarence Du Burns. (Schmoke called the remark "anti-Semitic" back then. Maybe the mayor forgot, or forgave, or simply understood Mimi better, when he delivered DiPietro's eulogy and a city proclamation at Our Lady of Pompei Church two days ago.)

To DiPietro, all politics was local. Thus, all politics was ethnic. Du was over there in East Baltimore with Mimi and his Dagos, and Schmoke was out in Northwest Baltimore, with the Jews.

Did he express it crudely? Absolutely. Did he mean it maliciously? If he had, would he have said it to a reporter? With DiPietro, it was all verbal shorthand.

When he campaigned for Harry Hughes several years earlier, he took Hughes along Eastern Avenue, where DiPietro knew everybody. When they got to Goldberg's Shoe Store, Mimi walked in and happily hollered, "Hey, you Jews, c'mon out and meet the governor."

Ouch! Did he actually say that? Yes! To their faces! To Mimi, there was no reason why he shouldn't. Yes, he made a lot of people uncomfortable with such ethnic shorthand. This is America, after all, it's the melting pot, where we put aside our differences.

But this wasn't about racial or religious intolerance. If DiPietro ever meant anything malicious by a remark, nobody had to read between any lines.

Did he use a crass nickname for Poles? Yeah, and a senator named Barbara Mikulski adored him and, in her eulogy, said, "Mimi spoke the language of the heart."

About blacks? Yeah, and a congressman named Kweisi Mfume stood outside the church Monday and remembered, "It was Highlandtown meets Mondawmin. Some people thought it would never work. But we became best friends. Mimi was only interested in one thing. He just wanted to know if you were a man of your word."

Du Burns stood a few feet from Mfume. He knew Mimi DiPietro about as well as anyone at City Hall, and always called him his "great friend." Like a lot of people, the former mayor understood Mimi for what he was: limited in education, but large in heart; a man given to some old, coarse language but, in the evening of his life, still growing, and trying to make the city work for everyone.

Some of us chose to remember these things at his dying.

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