Age, illness can't deter City Council's guardian Sergeant-at-arms: As 27 years and numerous legislators have passed by, Melvin Laszczynski has marked the time as the city's '20th council member.'

March 25, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The shimmering silver oxygen tank parked in the middle of Baltimore City Council chambers catches the eye first.

A clear tube juts from the tank nozzle, dipping and twisting over the red velvet rope separating the public from its elected leaders. The plastic hose climbs Melvin Laszczynski's bright yellow and black checkered Maryland state tie, rolling over the Camden Yards logo before wrapping around his ears to feed into his nostrils.

Neither rain nor snow -- nor even heart attack -- can keep the 71-year-old Highlandtown native from his front-row post at council meetings. The volunteer sergeant-at-arms has been attending most Mondays for 27 years, witnessing more than 1,000 meetings whose accumulated length has taken up more than a full month of his life.

He has followed 126 four-year council terms, watching some members rise to become judge and even governor, while others died or were sent to jail.

The retired 43-year fuel tanker driver started tracking the council in 1971 when the city hired him as a part-time clerk, a job that

amounted to being a traffic cop for legislation. Twelve years later, a heart attack left him disabled.

Fortunately, it happened during the council's Christmas break. Laszczynski (pronounced La-ZIN-ski) returned -- shuttled by a friend -- after missing only a few meetings.

"I have to give him credit, he's missed very few meetings," said Lorraine Laszczynski, his wife, who took over her husband's job as council clerk. "It's like religion, he has to be there. He loves politics."

He recites the names of the three-member delegations from his 1st District, going back a quarter-century, like a sports fan recalling the Colts Super Bowl backfields. "Duffy-Bonnett-Staszak," he said, recalling the 1966 threesome. With prompting, he rattles off his list of favorites: former Council President Clarence H. Du Burns ("He was a helluva guy"), state Del. Timothy D. Murphy ("a pretty intelligent guy"), current Council President Lawrence A. Bell III ("If he thinks you're wrong, he'll tell you"), former mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer ("a hot pot who got things done") and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski ("she really looked out for her district").

The greatest of his time? Laszczynski doesn't hesitate: Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro.

"He didn't have a formal education, but he got it done," Laszczynski said of the 25-year council member. "That's the sign of a good council member, they watch out for the people in their district."

Laszczynski chuckles at the memory of DiPietro, recalling the antics of the former 1st District representative known for his malapropisms who died in 1994 at age 89.

"When we were in the basement of City Hall, Mimi used to have crap games," Laszczynski said with a jolly chuckle. "Four or five of them would get together, and they'd get the dice out and shoot craps."

The laughter dissipates when he is asked to recall the council's darkest day: April 13, 1976. A gunman walked into City Hall looking for then-Mayor Schaefer and shot two council members and a mayor's aide, killing 6th District Councilman Dominic M. Leone Sr.

"That was terrible," Laszczynski, a father of four, said in a low, barely audible rumble. "Those guys never deserved to get shot."

Another rueful day stuck in his memory is the 1971 1st District council election. In his first and only bid for public office, Laszczynski finished behind the three-member Democratic ticket that included Mikulski.

The loss shattered Laszczynski's aspirations for public service and forever left him sitting behind the red velvet rope.

"It broke my heart," said Laszczynski, a giant of a man who is 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighs more than 250 pounds. "I think I would've made a good councilman because I would've had the people at heart."

The disappointment didn't keep him away. Almost three decades later, no City Council meeting begins until Laszczynski stretches the red velvet rope, sealing off the council, then counts heads before shouting to the council president: "We have a quorum, Mr. President."

Once the meeting begins, Laszczynski stands watch over the citizenry like a bouncer in a nightclub.

"I've had people jump the rope and I've had to call police," he said. "We've had to literally take some people out because they upset the chambers."

At 71, Laszczynski knows he can't mix it up the way he once might have, a circumstance not lost on council members. When passing between the rope during meetings, council members mutter: "Sit down, Melvin."

But Laszczynski will have none of it. He respectfully jumps to his feet, unclipping the rope and pulling it back for the member to pass.

"He's the 20th council member," said Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. of the 1st District. "Everybody looks for him to be sitting in that seat."

Despite two decades of watching council meetings that most residents wouldn't take pay to sit through, Laszczynski still gets passionate on the issues. He watches the votes come together as if staring at moves in a chess match.

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