John F. Liberto Sr., 86, produce vendor at Lexington Market

November 27, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John F. Liberto Sr., a longtime produce vendor whose family's Lexington Market stall supplied fresh vegetables and fruit to Baltimore tables for nearly a century, died of heart failure Monday at Northwest Hospital Center. The Woodlawn resident was 86.

Mr. Liberto was born in Baltimore and raised at Greene and Paca streets, not far from where his father, Salvatore Liberto, a Sicilian immigrant, established G. Liberto & Brothers in 1890.

After leaving school in the eighth grade, Mr. Liberto sold newspapers for a year in front of the Hippodrome Theater before going to work in 1930 for his father in the market. He remained there for 54 years, until retiring in 1984.

Dressed in a well-creased tweed cap, starched shirt and perfectly pressed dark pants, Mr. Liberto presided over the large stall near the Lexington Street entrance while chomping an ever-present maduro-colored El Producto cigar.

For decades, his daily routine never varied. He rose in the pre-dawn darkness, drove downtown and often didn't return home until well after 9 p.m.

"He'd be downtown and on the docks by 3 a.m. buying bananas off the boats, and then he'd go over to the old Commission District [now site of the Baltimore Convention Center] where he'd purchase only the finest lettuce, tomatoes and vegetables for his customers," said son John F. Liberto Jr. of Fallston. "And because he only bought high-quality produce, the customers came back week after week, and year after year."

During the holidays, he added items such as fresh Christmas greens that arrived by boxcar from Maine and Canada and were unloaded at Camden Station. Florida oranges, juicy red apples and a variety of nuts were other seasonal specialties he had on hand for customers.

"At Thanksgiving, he had all the trimmings for the table. He'd have yams, sweet potatoes, tangerines and always plenty of celery," the son said. "And at Christmastime, customers lined up to buy oranges and apples because they were considered to be big gifts in those days. And of course, oranges were always put into Christmas stockings."

Mr. Liberto was on his feet all day. "He never had a lunch break and generally just grabbed a cup of coffee when he could. He never sat down because he didn't want to keep his customers waiting," the son said.

"If a customer pointed to five apples on the display ... he sold them exactly what they saw and picked out. In his eyes, everything had to be perfect," the younger Liberto said.

He enjoyed telling stories of waiting on such celebrities as Katharine Hepburn, Lucie Arnaz and Vic Tayback, who shopped at his stall while performing in Baltimore. A longtime regular customer was then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, family members said.

After retiring, Mr. Liberto went each morning at 8:30 to the McDonald's at Rolling Road and U.S. 40, where he met a regular group of cronies who sat around until noon drinking coffee and talking about the old days in Baltimore.

"If someone didn't show up, they'd check the obit page," the son said.

Mr. Liberto was married for 42 years to the former Theresa Curreri, who died in 1988.

He was a longtime communicant of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church on North Paca Street, now the St. Jude Shrine.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 8420 Belair Road in Fullerton.

Mr. Liberto also is survived by a daughter, Marion C. Fuller of Fallston; a brother, Carmello Liberto of Catonsville; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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