In style he served, a proud cop retires

Profile: For 33 years, Joseph R. Bolesta Jr. weathered department storms, becoming Baltimore's longest- serving officer.

June 14, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The "Gentleman of Headquarters" is gone.

Joseph R. Bolesta Jr., the 58-year-old mustached overseer of budgets who quietly soared through the ranks of Baltimore's turbulent police force, has retired as the department's most senior member.

Police commissioners chose him time and again as the man who could implement their new ideas. But the reserved Baltimore native who married his high school sweetheart is most fond of helping citizens sort through their everyday problems.

"My happiest times were when I was in patrol," the former Coast Guard seaman turned whiskey salesman turned draftsman turned cop fondly recalls.

Bolesta joined the department for the rough-and-tumble action on the street. "I wanted to chase bad guys and lock them up." That was 1966. Theodore R. McKeldin was mayor. A reform-minded outsider named Donald D. Pomerleau ran the police force. Patrol cars were a luxury. Officers had to buy their own handcuffs.

The towering, athletic man was promoted at a pace unprecedented for his time -- sergeant in four years, lieutenant in six, captain in just over eight. For three decades, four mayors and six commissioners, Bolesta patrolled city streets, helped build the modern SWAT team, drew up budgets and hired countless fresh-faced recruits to follow in his footsteps.

He gained notice by fishing a body out of a bear pit at the zoo in the 1970s and steered clear of the politics that often embroils the police command staff at Fayette Street headquarters.

Not one for public displays of anger, the stern disciplinarian let his displeasure show in a dignified manner. His gentlemanly nickname was well-earned.

"No matter what the problem is, he is a gentleman in how he handles it," said Maj. Steven McMahon.

He was a patrolman during the riots of 1968 and a supervisor on a Good Friday eight years later when a sniper on Lombard Street killed an officer and pinned colleagues under a fusillade of bullets -- the catalyst for the creation of what is now the tactical division.

Bolesta spent most of his career linked to the street. Even as a manager, he most always supervised beat officers. In the late 1980s and early '90s, he ran the patrol bureau, the largest command on the force.

He spent his final five years in an office hidden away in downtown headquarters. But being cooped up wasn't his idea of being a cop. Four years ago, despite having had a heart attack and two strokes, he hit the streets with a young officer, and it made his day to stand in the street in his dress blues and direct traffic around a fender-bender.

Weathering storms

Throughout his years as a senior officer, Bolesta managed to stay clear of political acrimony.

The veteran took new assignments in stride, even when his latest commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, proved that riding a desk in the twilight years did not make Bolesta immune from political pressure.

He and two other commanders were ousted from their positions in 1996 after a city watchdog group issued a report that found racism on the police force. To ease tensions, Frazier replaced three white commanders, including Bolesta, with blacks to head hiring, discipline and training.

"It's part of the game," Bolesta said in retrospect, packing up his desk and changing jobs -- from choosing new hires and drawing up the $200 million budget to overseeing building maintenance and communications. "I'm a big boy."

A year later, a feud erupted when Frazier accused his top black deputy of plotting a coup for suggesting that the commissioner step down if racism was not dealt with. The reserved commander cringed as the feud, and police protest marches, hit the front pages.

"It was one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen in a police department," he said. "I was embarrassed. It was like some Third World country coup."

But Bolesta had seen it all before. In the early 1980s when Frank J. Battaglia ran the place, two factions of Italians jockeyed for position. Bolesta refused to pick sides. He wasn't Italian, he kept telling them. He was the "Great Polish Prince."

The early years

Born in Baltimore on Jan. 11, 1941, Bolesta graduated from Catonsville High School in 1959. He met his wife, the former Carole Hipsley, in sophomore homeroom. For him, it was love at first sight. "She couldn't stand me," he says.

They started dating at the school's "Get Together Dance" and now have five children between 23 and 36 years old.

Bolesta tried a variety of jobs, from selling business forms to peddling whiskey door to door at city taverns. In becoming a police officer, he followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, who had been a city police lieutenant.

His children describe their father as a devoted family man who moonlighted to augment his civil servant salary. He worked the midnight police shift and then spent the day unloading trucks on Wilkens Avenue. He used the extra money to fill their Christmas stockings, take them on trips to Florida and send them all to college.

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