Josephine Frances Rutkowski, 86, neighborhood activist in Baltimore

October 03, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Josephine Frances Rutkowski, an outspoken neighborhood activist who for more than 50 years sought to improve the quality of life for residents of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn, died of cancer Tuesday at her Washburn Avenue home. She was 86.

Miss Rutkowski, who was known as "Miss Jo," proved to be a formidable presence when dealing with officials and politicians over issues that affected Curtis Bay and Brooklyn, the two communities in which she lived her entire life.

Short, well-dressed and with a full head of curly salt-and-pepper hair, Miss Rutkowski was a ubiquitous presence at community meetings. She was never without her trademark black pocketbook or her favorite jaunty beret or wide-brimmed hat.

Deep from the pocketbook, she would withdraw a sheaf of notes on what she wished to discuss at meetings of the Brooklyn-Curtis Bay Coalition, the Brooklyn Community Association or the Southern Police Association.

"I used to tease her that I was going to put that bag in her coffin. She even attached it to her walker when she was in the hospital," said a niece, Kathy C. Wachter of Sykesville.

"She was a feisty little Polish lady who didn't mind button-holing mayors or politicians. She believed in helping her fellow man and never tired of fighting for the little guy. She was a very charitable and giving person who gave both her time and money," she said.

"She was an old-line resident and outspoken about everything. Plus she had the institutional memory of those neighborhoods. No matter what we did, it was never enough for Josephine," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr.

"She was wonderful. She'd go up to City Hall and to all the meetings. She'd get to us about potholes, dirty streets, pollution, education and crime. It's people like Josephine that drive the success of those neighborhoods. Good was never enough for her," Mr. Della said.

"Miss Jo" was acquainted with every Baltimore mayor from Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. to Martin O'Malley. Residents still recall the time she confronted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at the dedication of the Greater Brooklyn Center and refused to let him go until she had put over a point or two.

"She was absolutely fearless," recalled Mary M. Rosso, former delegate from the 31st District. "She had absolutely no problem telling you right to your face what she thought. She was right up there with the best of them."

"She had a profound faith in the city, and she never lost that. She always believed that you could fix things through the power of people working together. That's really the story of her life," said Frank A. Bittner, a longtime friend.

Miss Rutkowski was born into and raised in a large Polish family in Wagner's Point. As a teen-ager, she worked in a dress shop making bows and in a pretzel factory. While working, she attended evening classes at Southern High School, where she earned her GED.

In 1934, she went to work at McCormick & Co.'s old Light Street plant, where she packed tea and earned $6 a week. She was later promoted to an elevator-receptionist.

Until she retired in 1984 -- only missing one day of work in 50 years because of illness -- Miss Rutkowski followed an unchanged daily routine.

Because she never learned to drive, she would take a transit bus to work, but only after attending the daily 5:45 a.m. Mass at St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church in Curtis Bay, and later at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn.

"Back in the late '40s when I joined the company, she was what we called an `elevator girl,' and she was our No. 1 elevator girl," said Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr., chairman emeritus of McCormick.

"People coming into the building with scowls on their faces would be smiling and talking by the time Josephine delivered them to the seventh floor. She was probably the very first PR person McCormick ever had," he said.

Miss Rutkowski had been a Sunday school teacher, a Girl Scout leader, and during the 1950s and 1960s a Catholic Youth Organization adviser at St. Athanasius. The Scouts and teens became her surrogate children.

"Many teen-agers remember Miss Jo's strict prohibition about drinking at any of the CYO dances. She once locked down a hall full of teens until the guilty party admitted sneaking a bottle into the bathroom," Mrs. Wachter said, laughing.

Miss Rutkowski was honored several years ago by the Archdiocese of Baltimore with its Medal of Honor for her years of work with the CYO.

In her spare time, she enjoyed working in the garden behind her Washburn Avenue rowhouse, where she had lived since 1957. She also collected voluminous files and information on the history of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay communities.

"Her loves were her family, church, community and McCormick's. And we're not sure in what order," Mrs. Wachter said.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today at St. Athanasius, at Prudence and Church streets in Curtis Bay.

Miss Rutkowski is survived by two sisters, Frances Theresa Derry of Parkville and Antoinette Jean Smith of Linthicum; and many nieces and nephews.

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