An angel for St. Dominic's Wonder-worker: 'Doc Lance' writes prescription for Catholic school's financial well-being.

October 27, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,SUN STAFF

He's "Doc" or "Doc Lance" to the familiar faces and friendly nods along Harford Road and Hamilton Avenue. The Harford Center for Senior Citizens has named him "Humanitarian of the ** Year." And to nearby St. Dominic's School, he's an enterprising angel, a financial wonder-worker.

So why is pharmacist and businessman Lance W. Berkowitz, a self-described "Jewish guy from Brooklyn, N.Y.," with lots of irons in the fire, so involved in the well-being of an aging Roman Catholic parochial school in Northeast Baltimore?

Doc has a quick, practical answer. "The Arcade Pharmacy has been here for more than 75 years," he said. "I've been here 12. Obviously, St. Dominic's Church and School are focal points of Hamilton. A close relationship to the local church community has always made sense -- we're a small business."

Add to this what the 52-year-old pharmacist says he "preaches constantly" to his 22 employees: "If you take from the community, you have to give back to the community."

St. Dominic's, at 5302 Harford Road, has not been without other hard-working fund-raisers and benefactors since Cardinal William H. Keeler decreed four years ago that the parish schools of the archdiocese must be self-sufficient or go out of existence.

But much of the credit for raising $175,000 since then for operating needs and an endowment at St. Dominic's has gone to Mr. Berkowitz. He is "a very resourceful person," said Maureen Gercke, director of school development for the parish. "He's been unbelievably generous with his time and he is committed to the children," said Patricia Larkin, the principal.

Not only has reliance on church subsidies become a thing of the past; so has staffing by unsalaried religious sisters, Mrs. Gercke said. And the $2,500 tuition at St. Dominic's is not enough to cover the kind of teaching the lay staff wants for the 257 students at 11 age levels -- 20 percent of them non-Catholic -- from 3-year-olds to eighth-graders.

Founded in 1919, a decade after the establishment of the parish, the school came under an autonomous board in September 1991. Last year, it lost the last of the teaching nuns of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's Daughters of Charity and named Ms. Larkin its first lay principal.

Mr. Berkowitz has strong words of praise for the can-do educator. "She's enthusiastic beyond belief," he said of her as she bantered with uniformed boys and girls in the tree-shaded school yard, answering their questions or sharing their enthusiasms, referring to each by name. Ms. Larkin is a 20-year veteran of the Catholic school system.

The pharmacist also agreed with Mrs. Gercke's assessment of Catholic lay leaders who are determined to keep St. Dominic's School alive and well.

"They are a dedicated group," he said.

"They are a very cohesive, hard-working group of people," Mrs. Gercke said, referring to parish mainstays who raised nearly $5,000 with a "bull roast and casino" at Martin's Eastwind Sunday. She cited among them Dr. Louis Breschi, a St. Dominic's graduate who is school board president; John Herr, a past president of the board with two daughters in the school; and John Dohony, another graduate, who co-chairs the development committee with Mr. Berkowitz.

To the Catholics with strong personal ties to the church, the school and Hamilton, the Jewish community activist believes he can bring a valuable detachment as well as needed financial know-how and imagination.

When he joined the development committee, he said, he found that "none of the members had raised big money before." They were "starting from scratch, beating the pavement without a network of friends in high places," he said.

He pointed to his experience as a member of the Maryland Board for Community Colleges between 1987 and 1992, when he "helped govern a program with a $100 million budget and 78,000 students," he said.

Among his fund-raising ideas for St. Dominic's, said the former campaigner for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was an auction last year in which a 1983 World Series ring, donated by longtime Orioles broadcaster Chuck Thompson, brought $4,800.

A graduate of the pharmacy school at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Mr. Berkowitz has had a varied career in Washington and Baltimore. He recently sold his two drugstores, the Arcade in Hamilton and Kaufmann's in Towson, to an affiliate of Health Management Inc. -- HMI-Maryland Inc. -- of which he is now vice president. He recently was named "Pharmacist of the Year" by U.S. Pharmacist magazine.

He remains committed to the financial stability of St. Dominic's School, less than a block from his cluttered office above the Arcade store, with his plaque from B'nai B'rith and other awards on the wall.

He freely volunteers his advice to the Catholic archdiocese as well as his time and money. "One of the big problems," he said, "is that Catholic families are giving too few dollars. The church is doing a lot for its high schools, but it needs to put more emphasis on independent support for its elementary schools."

This Jewish father of an adult son and daughter believes Catholic parents do not take seriously enough the plight of their city schools such as St. Dominic's, which must "overcome the costly loss of the teaching sisters, compounded with the huge exodus to the suburbs."

Mr. Berkowitz' goal is to raise $25,000 more for the school in 1996, possibly with a celebrity golf tournament.

"We'll come up with something," he said confidently.

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