Pierpont was a winner at living life on his terms

October 04, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Ross Pierpont was the loyal opposition. Every time he saw a political vacuum, he opposed it. He ran for every office he could find, 16 times in all, and every time finished out of the money. But winning wasn't exactly the point. He liked the fight, and he wanted to make voters think about things. He wanted the political process to look like democracy, even if it was only Pierpont doing a shadow dance.

He was the guy who showed up whenever the Republican Party of Maryland needed to fill out a ticket. Then he'd make his opponents crazy. When he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, he chased Clarence Long back and forth across the old 2nd District. When he ran for the U.S. Senate, he threatened a family sit-in at Joe Tydings' campaign headquarters. When he ran for mayor of Baltimore, he and William Donald Schaefer had to be physically separated in an angry confrontation one morning in Cherry Hill.

And he laughed through every minute of it.

As chief of surgery at Maryland General, he'd go out campaigning after he finished operating. When he ran for Congress one time, rivals accused him of being an outsider.

"Do you know the people here?" an opponent snapped.

"Know them?" said Pierpont. "I've had my hands inside most of 'em."

When he died the other day, at 88, he knew he'd struck that rare grace note reached by so few of us: He'd lived a full life on his own terms. Don't talk to him about campaign finance - he financed his own campaigns. Don't talk to him about political labels - they called him a conservative, and the label stuck, but he supported abortion rights, and he favored universal health coverage. In 1966, Pierpont sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination because he believed George P. Mahoney, a conservative Democrat, was playing the race card.

"I'm not a liberal or a conservative," he said one day about 35 years ago. "I just finished a vasectomy. Do conservatives do vasectomies?"

In today's context, the question seems innocent. But it indicates our shifting political tides and our shifting perceptions of political labels. Under any label, Pierpont was a thunderbolt.

When the Baltimore Clippers played ice hockey here, Pierpont was team physician. One night at the place we used to call the Civic Center, an opposing player named Keke Mortson bit Dave Creighton's thumb. Creighton was a Clippers stalwart. Then Mortson made a mistake. He skated near the Clippers' bench. Pierpont reached out and punched Mortson in the face. The referees threw Pierpont out of the game.

"I was pretty embarrassed," Pierpont said. But he was laughing when he said it.

When he ran for mayor of Baltimore, back in 1971, I rode the campaign trail with him one day, which seemed like an exhausting month. It started in the pre-dawn hours at his North Baltimore home and ended near midnight, after a series of surgical operations at Harford Memorial Hospital and a bunch of campaign speeches.

From North Baltimore, he drove to Havre de Grace and entered surgery at 7:30 a.m. At 7:55, the first operation complete, he strode through his office in a green surgical outfit, calling out the names of patients he wanted to see. At 8:10 a.m., his phone rang.

"They're ready for me again in surgery," Pierpont said, and headed back out.

By 8:45, he'd finished two more operations. Dressed in his business suit, he sifted through papers as he examined patients. Then, standing in a little kitchen area, he grabbed a slice of rye bread, wrapped it around a hunk of ham and a pickle, and swallowed it all in four bites. Then he went out to give a day's worth of speeches.

A few generations of voters around the Baltimore area remember him for all the political races, and all the losses, but missed much of the remarkable history that preceded it. When Pierpont was 3, his father died. His mother drove a horse and buggy from Woodlawn out past Randallstown every day to teach school while Pierpont and his brothers found work wherever they could.

Pierpont once said he bought all his own clothes from the time he was 8 years old. By that age, he was working with an evangelist. "We saved souls," he recalled one time, laughing delightedly. "We saved one guy seven nights one week. He drank. Every day he'd fall from grace, and every night we'd save him."

Pierpont sold vegetables in the street, and milked cows and sold the milk. When he was 11, he ran a pool hall. "We'd let guys sleep on the tables at night because it was the Depression and they had no place else to go," he said. He put himself through medical school with a variety of jobs that included muskrat-trapping.

He was a dynamo who unfortunately became a political punch line because that's what we do when people run for office and never win. Sometimes we miss the larger aim. Pierpont was a little light burning in democracy's back room, trying to give a beleaguered political party a little legitimacy, and trying to keep honest debate alive, and trying to give a little oomph to the democratic process.

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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