Wagner's Point activist John Regiec dies at 79

He fought for buyout of area's homes

January 30, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

John Peter Regiec, a plain-spoken handyman who raised 10 children in Wagner's Point and in illness became a symbol of the dying southern Baltimore neighborhood, died of leukemia late Thursday at his Leo Street rowhouse. He was 79.

Over the past year, even as disease stole his stamina, Mr. Regiec mustered his energies to help the 270 fellow residents of his cancer-riddled neighborhood in their fight for a buyout and relocation of their homes.

Interviews and pictures of the ruggedly telegenic man -- wearing a fishing cap and sitting in a wheelchair pushed by his daughter and nurse, Roseann Hudgins -- became a fixture in media accounts of the neighborhood.

As Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke pledged to help fund the buyout through eminent domain last year, the mayor's gaze was plainly fixed on Mr. Regiec, who stared back.

"I wanted to let him know he should live up to the promise even after I'm gone," Mr. Regiec told The Sun recently, noting that the city and state had yet to convert promises of help into cash. "You know, I probably won't live long enough to get out of here."

He cleared his throat and added, "So put this in my obituary: I should be the last person to die in Wagner's Point."

Mr. Regiec believed his leukemia might have been caused by pollution from the chemical companies and oil tank farms that ring his neighborhood. That suspicion, shared by neighbors, made Mr. Regiec a living martyr. By his recent count, 21 residents of Wagner's Point have died of cancer in this decade, "most of them much younger than me."

As he lent strength to the buyout campaign, the fight seemed to keep him alive. When doctors diagnosed the leukemia in October 1997, they thought he would last a few weeks. Mr. Regiec said his stubbornness and the magic of pickle juice, which he drank regularly, sustained him. He often greeted friends and reporters by saying sharply, "Didn't expect to see me again, did you?"

"His will was very, very strong," said Mrs. Hudgins. "And he was a true gentleman."

Born on May 17, 1919, in Caldwell, Ohio, Mr. Regiec was the son of Polish immigrants. His father died before he was born, and his mother, Mary Znaniec, remarried when he was 6 and moved the family to Locust Point. Once, at a strawberry festival at St. Adalbert's Catholic Church in Wagner's Point, he met a local girl, Louise Kolodziejski. They were married in February 1942.

Mr. Regiec, a U.S. Army technician at the time, spent the first three years of his marriage in England, loading bombs and hauling supplies for the fight against Germany. After the war, the Regiecs rented the second floor of 3810 Leo St. in Wagner's Point. Ten years later, they bought the whole rowhouse for $6,700. They never left.

He spent 17 years as a maintenance mechanic at the American Oil Co.'s refinery in Wagner's Point and 18 years as a building engineer for Calwood Co. But in his heart, he was a carpenter. He taught his children how to repair walls and floors, helped neighbors with renovations and poured concrete for a Leo Street sidewalk when the city wouldn't do the job.

Mr. Regiec reveled in his children, whom he often took on plane-watching trips to Friendship Airport or on nature walks. The chemical industry's subsequent expansion in Wagner's Point, he often complained, had left his grandchildren without fresh air or a walking path to the Patapsco River.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by four sons, John L. Regiec of southern Baltimore, Steve Regiec of Glen Burnie, Mark Regiec of Wagner's Point and Ken Regiec of Pasadena; five other daughters, Carol Mills of Arbutus, Madge Pace of Glen Burnie, Shelly Riley of Baltimore, Cindy Regiec of Glen Burnie and Jackie Boykin of Brooklyn Park; three sisters, Louise Jubb of southern Baltimore, Helen Ciuchta of East Baltimore and Stella Stumpf of Brooklyn Park; and a brother, Edward Znaniec of Pasadena.

Friends will be received from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. today and tomorrow at Gonce Funeral Home, 4001 Ritchie Highway. A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday at Our Lady of Good Counsel on Fort Avenue. Burial will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Mr. Regiec, who rarely threw anything away, left behind hundreds of papers and memorabilia, collected and recorded by his daughter Cindy.

The day before he died, Wagner's Point residents met and voted unanimously to support a Johns Hopkins University study of the neighborhood's air.

But first, they had a moment of silent prayer for John Regiec.

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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