Beefed-up menu serves firehouse

Habit: Virginia Becker's been visiting Engine Company 2 in Federal Hill with food in hand every Saturday for decades.

January 24, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Virginia Becker, self-described fire chaser, never wanted people to set their clocks by her.

She didn't want firefighters to switch their schedules to be at the Federal Hill station Saturdays for her cold corned beef dinner.

But after almost five decades and more than a ton of corned beef -- about 2,400 pounds -- it just became unavoidable.

"Miss Virginia," 71, keeps on delivering a pound of corned beef, a loaf of rye bread, a box of Utz chips, two pickles and a fruit pie every Saturday night to the fire station at Light and Montgomery streets.

"She's like our mother," said Lt. Ken Smith, shift supervisor at Engine Company 2.

Miss Virginia said she'll keep doing it as long as she can walk and drive.

"I'd do without before I'd stop giving to them," she said, as she sat in her Warren Avenue home, a shortwave radio crackling the fire frequency in the background. "I'd be lost without doing it."

For 47 years, she's been the bearer of corned beef, and for 47 years they have called her the Corned Beef Lady.

Sometimes, they call her the Mayor of Warren Avenue because she keeps watch over her street and goes to almost every fire in the neighborhood.

"I always was a fire chaser, from the time I was 14. They'd say it wasn't a fire if I wasn't there," she said. "My mother said if they ever had women firefighters, I'd be one."

When she started going by the station in the 1940s, firefighters would turn on every light in the house as a sign to others that a woman was there.

Miss Virginia has devoted much of her life to following Engine 2, which is just a block and a half from her house.

She makes life easier for the rotating shifts of four firefighters who sleep, shower and cook at the station between fighting fires.

"She has a limited income, but every Saturday, she's here with corned beef," said firefighter Mark Wodarski, 45, who has been eating Miss Virginia's Saturday night special for 21 years.

The cost of the corned beef is kept secret because she doesn't want the boys to worry about her finances.

"I don't want them to know," she said.

Her source of income is Social Security. She said if she didn't get a tax break, she couldn't afford to keep her house on Warren Avenue.

Over the past 25 years, the street has turned into a collection of upscale, renovated red brick homes. She has not been part of the gentrification but says she feels she's central to the neighborhood.

Miss Virginia has delivered the beef since 1954, through the administrations of 10 presidents, eight governors and nine mayors.

The year she started -- when she was 24 -- most of the homes on Warren Avenue, where her mother and grandfather were born, were covered in Formstone. Now, hers is the only Formstone house on her side of the block.

Miss Virginia, who attended Southern High School until the 10th grade and was a secretary at a printing company for 37 years, is the firehouse's longest-running, most loyal supporter.

She makes a solid argument for the theory that the best way to the heart is through the stomach.

She's missed three Saturdays that she can remember -- two because of snowstorms and one because she was in the hospital for surgery.

"When I was in the hospital, they lost one night," she said. "The next week, I made arrangements for it to be delivered."

Miss Virginia's ritual starts at 5 p.m., when she and her dog, Muffin, make their way to Attman's Delicatessen on East Lombard Street's Corned Beef Row, pick up their order at about 5:30 and deliver it to her "boys" at about 6.

Muffin gets a hot dog topped with bologna for coming along for the ride.

"She's my most loyal customer," said Attman's manager, David Bush. "She's here like clockwork. Some of our employees keep their clock by her. If Miss Becker's here, you know you can start cleaning up. We close at 6."

She began her visits in 1944 when the firemen (no women at the time) worked 12-hour shifts and could not leave the station because they had no radios.

She would run errands for them and bring them ice cream.

When she saw how much they liked sweets, she started bringing them sticky buns.

That lasted for 10 years, and she was known as The Doughnut Lady until the mid-1950s. Eventually, she figured out they liked corned beef, and she began delivering it.

Now she has seniority over every firefighter at Engine 2. She has delivered dinner to many of their fathers when they were stationed there.

"Almost everybody knows about the Corned Beef Lady," said firefighter Steve Horcher. "If there's Saturday detail on Engine 2, everybody gets in line to do it."

Miss Virginia has never asked for a thing in return, but when it snows, the firefighters from Engine 2 shovel her walk.

When her basement floods, they pump it out. When Christmas rolls around, they buy her presents.

When they ride by her house, they toot their horn to say hello.

"I just love the guys," she said. "They're my buddies."

She cooks them turkey dinners, brings them cookies during the holidays and looks out for them.

After all these years, the menu never changes, she said, because, well, she's a creature of habit.

"I tell them if they ever want roast beef that's OK," she said reluctantly. "But not pizza. They can order that themselves."

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