'Marvin would have wanted this' Office of slain attorney to house services for poor

April 11, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

In South Baltimore, people remember Marvin Brent Cooper. He was the Pikesville boy who moved to the neighborhood after he grew up, taught chess to local children, defended grown-ups in court and three years ago, died with a bullet in his stomach.

"It was unbelievable, such a shock to people," David Dittman said of the 1994 slaying in Guilford near Cooper's home in Oakenshawe. The lawyer kept his office in his former home in South Baltimore. "His friends still walk past his old place on Light Street and talk about him -- his pro bono work, helping kids, sticking his neck out."

Dittman has guided 13 other retired amateur carpenters called the Light Street Hammers in a project to ensure that people will remember the attorney even better after Sunday. That's when Cooper House, at 1531 Light St., will be dedicated to serving the sick and poor.

For the past 18 months, Dittman, known as the Hammerhead, and his volunteer Hammers have put down flooring, hung doors, installed windows and fixed floors to reshape the deteriorating three-story rowhouse. Light Street Housing Corp. bought it in 1995 from Cooper's widow, Gustava E. "Gusty" Taler.

A three-bedroom apartment on the upper two floors will be rented as permanent quarters exclusively for women. Tenants may be recovering substance abusers, mentally ill or simply poor, but they must have jobs or the means to pay $170 monthly rent. The first tenants may move in by the end of this month.

The ground floor will be new headquarters for the staff of seven of Light Street Housing, the nonprofit developer of affordable housing. The group operated rent-free for 10 years out of the Light Street Presbyterian Church, where it began.

"I can't think of a finer use of this building or something that would have made Marvin happier," said Taler, who helped arrange the Sunday opening. "He enjoyed South Baltimore and the people there so much."

A lifelong chess player, Cooper was admired for his lessons for children at the Thomas Johnson Elementary School, a block south of Cooper House. "For many of these children, Marvin was not only their coach and cheerleader, he was also their confidante and friend," his widow said.

The partnership of friends ended abruptly May 28, 1994. While walking home from a chess club meeting, Cooper, 46, was robbed of his wallet and an electronic pocket organizer and then fatally shot.

A 29-year-old Baltimore man was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years for first-degree murder. His 31-year-old cousin was sentenced to 25 years.

Taler had studied law partly at her husband's urging and graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School just four days before the killing. She passed the Maryland Bar and practices immigration and family law at Montague & Taler, 1314 Hunter St.

The idea of transforming Cooper's office building, a rundown structure needing extensive repair, came about after Light Street Housing officials read an article about Taler in Baltimore magazine a year after the murder. In it, Taler indicated she wanted to sell 1531 Light St.

M. Gregory Cantori, executive director of Light Street Housing, called Taler and told her of his hopes. His group has bought and rehabilitated 14 rental homes for low-income tenants, a dozen in South Baltimore.

"I leaped at the opportunity to sell to Light Street," Taler said. "They are good people. Marvin would have wanted this. It's been a fabulous experience."

Youths from the "Our House" Job Corps program in Ellicott City and emotionally disadvantaged students from St. Elizabeth's School and Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore also helped Dittman's group. The combined voluntary effort has amounted to $30,000 worth of free labor, Cantori said.

Leading dozens of donors who support the house was Towson Presbyterian Church, which gave $20,000 and a crew of monthly volunteers.

The Hammers have done free work for Light Street and in West Baltimore for eight years.

"The Hammers are doers," said Dittman, a retired Social Security Administration manager. "You have to keep them working. We worked on Cooper House on Tuesdays and Thursdays."

The public is invited to the dedication, which will include free refreshments and tours of Cooper House at 2: 30 p.m. Sunday.

Those expected to attend include Taler; Cooper's mother, LeEtta Cooper; his sister, Janet Day Hirsh; and his brother, Menachem Cooper. Only seven weeks before Cooper was murdered, his father, lawyer Samuel Cooper, died of cancer.

Tickets from $10 to $200 to support Cooper House are available for a 1: 30 p.m. reception and light lunch at Thomas Johnson.

A Cooper memorial also exists in another form at the elementary school. About 25 second- through fifth-graders, down from 50 at the start of the year, play chess under coach Geri Giossi. She took over when Cooper died and is helped this year by volunteers from the accounting firm Sacks, McGibney, Trotta and Koppelman.

Ten children, perhaps some older ones taught by Cooper, will teach visitors Sunday.

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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