Warren McNeil, 58, owner of delicatessen, chess player

December 02, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Warren McNeil, a former West Baltimore delicatessen owner and chess aficionado who played daily matches at parks and clubs, died Sunday of undetermined causes while visiting a brother in Washington.

A resident of the Walbrook community, Mr. McNeil, 58, operated a deli on West North Avenue from 1975 to 1991. The business was simply called "Deli" and Mr. McNeil worked mostly alone, friends said.

"It wasn't a fancy place, but it was a place where you could get a good sandwich all of the time," said Sheila Denton, a longtime friend. "He kept it clean and nice, and it was good for the community, because he hired men and young boys to do things in and around the deli to keep it respectable."

A chess board was kept near or on the service counter, and Mr. McNeil took on all comers -- usually for a wager.

"He'd play for anywhere between a dollar a game and $20 a game," said Walter Burgess, a friend. "He didn't lose too often. If you want to say that he'd hustled you, then fine, he'd hustled you in a heartbeat."

Mr. McNeil's passion was chess, and he was a regular at the old Chess Story at Park Avenue and Mulberry Street, as well as at games at Druid Hill Park and War Memorial Plaza downtown.

Customers said Mr. McNeil often liked to show off and play chess while slicing meat for a sandwich.

That way, friends reckoned, he was able to say that his mind wasn't on the game if he lost.

But he seldom lost.

"You'd think the world had come to an end if he lost," Mr. Burgess said. "He'd sit and pout, and then he'd want a rematch for double or nothing."

A Baltimore native, Mr. McNeil attended Forest Park High School and served in the Army from 1958 to 1961. He worked as a construction laborer for several years before a back injury forced him to stop.

The injury also made Mr. McNeil unable to find work, making him lose his apartment and live for a time in shelters and on the streets.

"He had it rough for a while, because it's hard to get back to where you were once you go down," said Sherie Douglass, his former girlfriend.

He worked in the deli doing day work and later took over when the owner died. For many years, Mr. McNeil lived in a small apartment above the deli. During his off hours, he worked to establish a catering business by providing food for small parties and wedding receptions. He retired in 1991.

"His life was not a glorious one, but one that he had to scrape and struggle with," Ms. Douglass said. "His final years were happy, but he had to work for everything."

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Mr. McNeil, who was divorced, is survived by three sons, Michael A. McNeil of Baltimore, Gregory D. McNeil of Richmond, Va., and Tyrone McNeil of Havre de Grace; a daughter, Dionne McNeil-Pace of Atlantic City, N.J.; a brother, William A. McNeil of Washington; and two grandchildren.

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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