Stockings stuffed with care Politics: A Highlandtown precinct captain helps legislators say thank you for the support of their senior constituents.

December 21, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

For nearly 40 years, Beefie Coccia has been teaching East Baltimore politicians a thing or two about job security.

"Rule No. 1 is something my mama taught me," says the 78-year-old Highlandtown native. "Always say thank you."

During the holiday season, Coccia ensures that Democrats from Southeast Baltimore, where he's a precinct captain, heed his mother's advice and offer a gift of thanks to their elderly constituents -- he makes them hand-deliver stockings filled with fruit and candy to East Baltimore senior centers.

And to make sure they do it right, he personally stuffs each stocking in the basement of his Claremont Avenue rowhouse.

"I've helped four Joes and one Perry," Coccia says, referring to state senators Joe Staszak, Joe Bertorelli, Joe Bonvegna, American Joe Miedusiewski and Perry Sfikas. "It's been like the League of Nations -- Italian, Polish and Greek."

The holiday tradition started in the 1950s with Staszak, who used to give Christmas trees to his constituents.

"Staszak's family had a Christmas tree farm in Michigan," Coccia recalls. "He used to have the trees shipped to Baltimore, then he'd pick me up and we'd deliver them. After he left office, we stopped delivering the trees. So now it's the stockings."

As many as 2,000 each year.

Each one is packaged and hand-delivered the same day the fruit arrives on Coccia's front stoop. Once they're ready to go, he calls Sfikas, who promptly responds -- with all three of the state delegates from the 46th District in tow.

"This is our way of saying thank you to the generation that built this country and defended it," Sfikas said. "They weathered the Depression, fought in World War II and built this city up in the 1950s and '60s."

The holiday gesture costs about $2,000. That's 42 boxes of fruit and about 60 pounds of nuts and candy. Labor is free.

"I figure out how much fruit we're going to need for this center, how much for that one, then I place my order," says Coccia, who sometimes wakes at 3 a.m. to start working on the stockings. "When the bill comes in, I send it to Perry. It's a pleasure to have him pay."

The state delegation covers the cost of the time-honored tradition with money from campaign coffers.

Sfikas said he asked state delegates Cornell Dypski, Peter Hammen and Carolyn Krysiak to help him with the yuletide festivities three years ago because "we're a team."

"And Perry needed some help carrying 2,000 stockings," Hammen said with a grin.

Over the years, the tradition has come to mean a lot to the senior citizens who insist their holiday season isn't complete until they see the senator.

"It's more than a friendly gesture," said Eva Davis, 85, as she accepted her stocking with a smile during a recent gathering at the Gardenville recreation center in Hamilton. "It's a chance for us to meet our representatives face-to-face.

"Sen. Sfikas helps us with our problems," she said. "And all of them answer our questions. One of them gave my sister advice about her property taxes."

Coccia says stories like those are what makes the long hours he spends stuffing stockings worthwhile.

"I'm from the old school," he says. "I like to help people. It's just my nature."

And it's a trait Coccia inherited from his mother, Rachela Agnes Coccia, who was fluent in Italian and worked as an interpreter, helping immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship.

Inspired by his mother's good works, Coccia wakes before the sun on December mornings and quietly makes his way down to the basement.

He stands in a small space the size of a coat closet, where the coal bin was once housed, and works for as many as four hours a day on his makeshift assembly line, sorting fruit and counting candy.

It's a lot of work for one person to do; lucky for him, he has help.

Dawn Kuchta, Coccia's girlfriend of several years, staples the stockings shut after he has stuffed them full of goodies.

There's a rhythmic flow to their stocking stuffing.

Nuts. Candy. Green apple. Orange. Red apple. Tangerine.

"The different fruits gives the stockings some color, makes them festive," said Kuchta, 69.

Next year, they will turn their attention to other events organized for the state delegation.

In March, there's the bull roast. In July, a cookout. And at the height of summer, Sfikas and the state delegates will give away watermelon under Coccia's watchful eye.

A staunch Democrat, Coccia said he will continue to offer guidance to the local politicians for as long as he can.

"Or until a Republican takes office," he says.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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