Pica's life built on instinct, fearlessness and good fun

February 17, 2002|By Michael Olesker

JOHN PICA Sr. lived a life of minimal editing. To call him a great character is to minimize the term. He was our emissary to a world where fearless people act on impulse, and everybody watching nervously from the sidelines comes out of hiding afterward to figure out how it happened.

Once, Pica was asked, "This instinct to march to your own drummer -- where did it come from?"

"I marched to my own drummer in the Army," he said. "I was a machine gunner. They told me, `Don't fire until we say so.' Hell, if a leaf moved, I shot it. I wasn't gonna listen to them."

He carried the machine gun in World War II, where he was one of Maryland's most decorated soldiers. The tales of bravery echoed through the years, but never by Pica's telling. Sure, he won the Silver Star for gallantry and, sure, he won the Bronze Star for valor.

But the way Pica always explained it, "Every time I ran for my life, they gave me another medal."

Shot up pretty badly -- he had a couple of Purple Hearts -- he was sent home to East Baltimore's Little Italy a few months before war's end. On V-E Day, he's the guy who swiped a coffin from the Della Noce Funeral Home, dressed up a neighborhood guy named George Ferretti to look like Hitler, and paraded Ferretti inside the open coffin through the celebratory streets.

Pica was Tommy (The Elder) D'Alesandro's aide for a lot of the postwar years. Once, the two men were driving through Little Italy on Election Day when the bells of St. Leo's began to toll. Somebody was going to be buried. Pica turned quickly to D'Alesandro.

"Don't worry," he said of the dearly departed. "He'll vote."

He was like that. To the hour he died early Thursday, at 78, when his heart gave out, with his daughter, Maria, and his son, John Jr., by his side, the old man held onto a schoolboy's incorrigibility. Maria's with the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. John Jr. was a state senator who's now in private law practice. If they wanted to act like grown-ups, that was fine. The father held onto his inner child.

"He did not want to go," John Pica Jr. said Thursday, a few hours after his father died at Good Samaritan Hospital. "He fought to the very end, and he lived life the way he wanted to live it. It's a gift we should all have."

"We'll all be telling stories about him for the rest of our lives," Maria Pica said.

How about the time he chauffeured Tommy D'Alesandro and Vice President Harry Truman around town in a burned-out car, and they had to use fruit crates for seats? They'd pulled Pica away from a street-corner craps game, and it was the best car he could find on short notice.

How about the time he was a city councilman and an elderly woman complained she couldn't get the city to remove a tree from her front yard? The city said it was private property. So, in the middle of the night, Pica took it upon himself to cut down the tree, and then put it in the middle of the street so the city would have to haul it away.

How about the time John Kennedy came to town in his run for president? Tommy (The Younger) D'Alesandro chauffeured Kennedy around town. When they got outside the 5th Regiment Armory, JFK said, "Isn't that John Pica over there?"

"You know him?" D'Alesandro asked.

"Of course," Kennedy said. "Bring him over." And the two men sat in the back of Kennedy's limo for a while to shoot the breeze.

Or the time Pica took the family to a Frank Sinatra concert, and a big guy walks over to their seats and summons them to a little room, where Sinatra emerges, and declares, "Johnny, how ya doin'?" Turns out, they'd known each other since Sinatra played the Hippodrome here in the late '30s and Pica would walk him over to Little Italy for dinner after the shows.

He had connections everywhere. His nephew, Tommy Pellegrini, was wounded in Vietnam and spent time on a hospital ship there. One day the captain of the ship walks into his room. He had a pen and paper with him.

"You have an uncle named John Pica?" the captain asked.

Stunned, Pellegrini nodded.

"I got a message from him," the captain said. "He said you haven't written to your mother, and I can't leave this room until you do."

In 1976, Pica took his family to the Inner Harbor to join the huge crowds welcoming the Tall Ships. As the Amerigo Vespucci docked, Pica bolted up the gangplank and disappeared into the ship. Eventually, Maria was dispatched to bring him back.

When she found him, he was enthroned among officers, speaking to them in Italian. And they were calling him "Ambassador." When Pica saw his daughter, he winked and said, "Get the family. We're staying for dinner."

He came out of a time when the city's neighborhoods were still sharply divided by ethnic and racial background. But, as a kid, he was one of those who ventured out of Little Italy, a block north to Lombard Street where the city's Jews congregated. Bridges were built -- politically and emotionally.

Years later, Maria Pica remembered, when she told her family that she was going to be married -- but her intended husband was a Protestant -- her father instantly declared: "You can't do that. You gotta marry in the faith -- a Catholic or a Jew."

He yielded, of course. The wedding was at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church, where everyone gathered yesterday to say farewell to Pica. He made a lot of friends over the years, and a few enemies, too. That happens when you lead a life built on instinct and fearlessness and, never to be minimized, enormous, good-hearted fun.

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