Ralph DeChiaro, 87, real estate developer, Catholic philanthropist

March 01, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Ralph DeChiaro, the real estate developer who changed the landscape of Baltimore County with scores of homes and apartments, died yesterday of complications of cancer at Miami (Fla.) Heart Institute. He was 87 and had homes on Bay Harbor Island in Miami Beach, Fla., and Towson.

Mr. DeChiaro also was a major donor to Baltimore's Roman Catholic schools and institutions.

A self-made man who began his professional life as a construction worker for his contractor father, Mr. DeChiaro rode the tide of development that was spreading through Towson in the 1940s and '50s.

He built and owned Towson's first large shopping center, Towson Plaza, in 1959. It is now the basis of Towsontown Center. He also constructed the Baltimore and Annapolis Hilton hotels.

"He was always a very generous man," said Henry J. Knott Jr., a former Baltimore masonry contractor and developer. "When my father was helping to raise money for parochial schools in the Baltimore area, he always went to Ralph, who was very generous with his donations."

"Ralph DeChiaro was a special personality," said Peter G. Angelos, lawyer and Baltimore Orioles owner. "He was an astute businessman, an enthusiastic philanthropist to a wide range of charities. He was a role model for all Marylanders."

Friends recalled him as a man of quick and accurate decisions, an energetic person with a warm personality. He rarely sought publicity.

He also led a group who tried to purchase the Baltimore Orioles in the mid-1970s. The group dropped out when it considered the $12 million asking price too high.

"He and Joe DiMaggio belonged to the same country club," said DiChiaro's daughter, Carolann Gallagher of Naples, Fla. "Joe came to dinner two or three nights a week when he was in Miami Beach. My father loved people, and he liked to have a good time. The two told wonderful stories."

When Mr. DeChiaro celebrated his 80th birthday in Baltimore, Mr. DiMaggio came to the party.

Often described as a sportsman, Mr. DeChiaro had a financial interest in the Cleveland Browns football team in the 1950s and owned stock in two racetracks, Randall Park near Cleveland and Tropical Park in Florida.

He often played golf to relax and was a member of the Hillendale Country Club.

Born in Queens, N.Y., he was the oldest of 12 children. He was a graduate of St. Ann Academy in New York. He played basketball in high school and won several athletic scholarships but went to work to help support his family.

He arrived in Maryland in 1941 to build housing units in Middle River, Bainbridge, Fort Meade and Annapolis.

He went on to build the Uplands Apartments off Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore and developed the Campus Hills neighborhood, then a 248-acre tract with Goucher Boulevard as its main street. Some of his original Campus Hills property became the site of Notre Dame Preparatory School, and 44 acres went for construction of the Providence Road interchange of the Baltimore Beltway.

Mr. DeChiaro built the Pickwick Apartments in Northwest Baltimore, the Dulaney Valley Apartments in Towson, the Chadwick Manor Townhouse Apartments in Woodlawn and others.

While he concentrated his work in Baltimore County -- and built a lavish home, Villa DeChiaro in the Green Spring Valley -- he built the Baltimore Hilton, now the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, at Charles Center in downtown Baltimore in 1965.

In 1983, he donated the DeChiaro Center, a gym and student center, to Loyola College.

"He was an agent for growth and progress," said the Rev. Harold Ridley, S.J., president of Loyola. "To the end, he remained an advocate for Catholic education, and I know that Loyola is a better place for having known Ralph DeChiaro as a friend and leader."

In the 1990s, when his fortune was estimated at $150 million, Mr. DeChiaro was a reluctant witness in a lawsuit brought by his feuding daughters. The daughters agreed to a 1996 settlement.

He married Dorothy Nicoletta Sanzo, who died in 1998. They had been married nearly 66 years.

A funeral Mass is pending at his home parish, Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson.

He is survived by two other daughters, Roberta J. Hucek of Towson and Diane T. Rachuba of Columbia; two brothers, Nicholas DeChiaro of Melbourne, Fla., and Patrick DeChiaro of New York; four sisters, Rose Crescenzo of Queens, N.Y., Jennifer Suarz and Mildred Pederson, both of Syosset, N.Y., and Rosalie Seaman of Mineola, N.Y.; nine grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

Sun staff writer Fred Rasmussen contributed to this article.

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