Memories and friends endure in East Baltimore

November 18, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The past went thataway - vanishing behind some trace of mist and missing - but it's still possible to pick up its remnants on nights when the old-timers gather as they did Friday night, at the Steelworkers Hall on Dundalk Avenue, for their eighth annual east side reunion.

About 400 guys crammed into the big place, remembering pickup games at Patterson Park, remembering the girls strolling along Eastern Avenue on spring nights, remembering when the world held out all manner of grand possibilities.

"It's beautiful," said Dave Pivec, the '61 Patterson High grad who went on to play for Notre Dame and for several pro teams in an eight-year football career. "I come to these things, and every year my history seems to get better. Now I get introduced as an All-America at Notre Dame. It never happened, but what am I gonna do, correct 'em?"

It's one of the things that makes these reunions so much fun. Most of these guys are now living in places like Perry Hall and Bel Air and White Marsh and Rosedale, spread out in the sprawling suburban migration of the past half century. The old neighborhoods like Highlandtown and Canton and Fells Point, and the streets where they grew up, have changed and changed again, the way things do.

But something important happened back here in East Baltimore, when everybody was still young. The old neighborhoods are a state of mind and not just a pile of bricks or a ball field or a classroom where numb hours were spent grappling with algebra.

The reunions are reminders of yesterday, and great legitimizers: If all these people keep coming back, if everybody still remembers the same great stories, then it didn't just happen inside their heads. They were part of something nice, something worth holding onto.

"It's a brotherhood," said Lou Karpouzie. "It's a fellowship, an endless reminiscence, call it what you will. We have our memories, our laughs, and we raise enough money to send some of it back to Patterson High School, where most of us went."

Everybody in East Baltimore knows Karpouzie, or should. He's the guy who organizes this dinner every year. He's also the guy who organizes athletic leagues for kids and looks after the ball fields, and he's organized holiday dinners for about 500 elderly and poor people for the past 17 Thanksgiving Days over at Patterson High's cafeteria - as he will this year.

Officially, this reunion's the Lou Karpouzie Athletic Reunion. Unofficially, it's a gathering of East Baltimore extended family. It started with Patterson High grads and has grown to take in all manner of east side guys.

Only about a third of them still live in the city. But East Baltimore's still home, still where the heart resides.

"Oh, sure," said Otts Nardone, class of '43 at Patterson, whose football exploits are still the stuff of legend. "Wherever you move, this is still where it started. Heck, I still bring my sewing down to Eastern Avenue. This little Greek lady's been doing it for me for years, 'cause nobody else does things the way they do 'em down here."

Communities go through changes. The commercial strip along Eastern Avenue has struggled in recent years, though there are reports of good things in the works. There's drug traffic on some neighborhood streets where such a thing was once unimaginable. But the police claim they're cutting into it. There have been some rough years at Patterson High.

But the school's new principal, Kevin Harahan, showed up at the reunion Friday night and talked about the "great potential" he sees. One of Patterson's veteran history teachers, Ed Brzozowski, said it's turned a corner, that "real teaching is going on, attendance is up, it's a pleasure to teach there again."

This was music to the old grads who heard it. It's years since they left, but they want to hold onto memories of the school, and the times when they were young.

"I remember playing football for the Eastern Police Boys Club," said Carl Runk, who went on to become lacrosse coach at Towson State University. "Sgt. George Henneman was our coach." Runk laughed at the memory.

"We were playing Red Shield," Runk said, "and Henneman wanted to get us worked up. So he told us, 'Red Shield, boys! They're a bunch of Commies!'"

"I played on some of those Red Shield teams," remembered Charlie Welzant, who later spent 35 years in the Marines and flew up from Savannah, Ga., for Friday's reunion.

"Let me tell you," said Welzant, "they talk about the camaraderie in the Marines, and they're right. But there's no camaraderie like East Baltimore's."

That's what drew them back last week. Most of 'em are long gone to the suburbs now, which is the American way. But East Baltimore's still home, and that's the way of the heart.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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