Helen J. Rizzo

[ Age 85 ] The prolific writer chronicled growing up in Baltimore and presented her religious and conservative views.

She was disdainful of network TV, which she said "[teetered] precariously between the idiotic and moronic."

November 28, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Helen J. Rizzo, a writer whose subject matter ranged from conservation and religious issues to growing up in Union Square, died of congestive heart failure Sunday at Ridgeway Manor Nursing Home. The longtime Westgate neighborhood resident was 85.

Helen Joan Lukosevicius, a daughter of immigrant parents from Lithuania, was born and raised in the couple's Lombard Street rowhouse that stood between Stricker and Calhoun streets.

"They were tailors and took an active part in the Lithuanian immigrant community that was centered around St. Alphonsus," said a daughter, Phila Hoopes of Westgate.

In an "I Remember" feature Mrs. Rizzo wrote in 1973 for the old Sun Magazine, she recalled the well-stocked, aromatic neighborhood shops, the lively street life that included organ grinders and corner Salvation Army bands serenading passers-by.

"Oddly enough, pleasant smells from our childhood days are often remembered as fondly as sights," she wrote.

"One was the Coney Island Hot Dog Shop just below the Capitol Theater. Its only and most forceful advertising was in the form of an occasionally open door, out of which would waft the most irresistible aromas imaginable," she wrote.

The other was a nearby delicatessen with its "sawdust-strewn floor" and whose "pungent smells" included "well-seasoned lunch meats, the pickle and herring barrels, the crunchy poppy-seed topped rolls and rye breads."

A graduate of St. Martin's Academy in West Baltimore, she earned an associate's degree in 1937 from Mount St. Agnes College in Mount Washington.

An air raid warden during World War II, she went to work in the late 1940s as a secretary for American Oil Co.

In 1955, Mrs. Rizzo took a job as a secretary at WFBR-AM, where she worked until marrying Louis S. Rizzo in 1959.

In a 1980 "I Remember" column, she recalled hearing news of her elopement over the station's PA system dramatically intoned by announcer Lou Corbin.

"Again, congratulations and all good wishes to both of them. Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem," said Mr. Corbin.

"A slight pause was followed by a magnificent symphonic rendition of the `The Wedding March' from Lohengrin," she wrote.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Mrs. Rizzo was an executive assistant at the old First National Bank of Maryland's headquarters at 25 S. Charles St.

But it was writing that was the center of Mrs. Rizzo's life. She took creative writing courses at the Johns Hopkins University.

For years, from a book-lined study tucked between her living room and kitchen, Mrs. Rizzo sat at her desk busily typing, first on a Royal and later Smith Corona typewriter.

She was a regular and prodigious contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines, some of which included The Sun, The Evening Sun, News American, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Jewish Times as well as Liberty Magazine, Daily Blessing, and The American Baby.

Mrs. Rizzo, who wrote under the byline of "Helen J. Rizzo" or "H.J. Rizzo," often took a conservative stand on such issues as prayer in school, sex education and crime in Baltimore.

"But until we stop treating our high crime rate as an accepted way of life ... Baltimore will remain a smartly gowned, coiffed and perfumed matron who hasn't bathed in a month and whose offensiveness is readily apparent to all who come near her," she wrote in a 1980 op-ed article in The Evening Sun.

She suggested in a 1979 Evening Sun article that sex education courses in schools were "explicit to the point of being lewd" and are an "open invitation to promiscuity among America's youth."

Annoyed at the quality of network television programming, Mrs. Rizzo described the content of the "great national pacifier" as "teetering precariously between the idiotic and moronic."

She stopped writing in the late 1990s, Mrs. Hoopes said.

From 1993 to 2006, she earned 2,682 volunteer hours working in the Women's Health Center at St. Agnes Hospital. She also was secretary of the Westgate Community Association and edited its newsletter.

She enjoyed ceramics and painting in oils.

Mrs. Rizzo was an opera fan and, in addition to regularly listening to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, liked attending performances at Lincoln Center with an old college friend, Ellen B. Fletcher, who lives in Timonium.

"She was always a lady - which may not mean much in this generation, but it meant a great deal in ours," Mrs. Fletcher said.

Mrs. Rizzo was a communicant of St. William of York Roman Catholic Church, Cooks Lane and Edmondson Avenue, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today.

In addition to her husband, a retired Domino Sugar supervisor, and daughter, Mrs. Rizzo is survived by a stepson, John Rizzo of Catonsville; a stepdaughter, Celeste Dean of Joppa; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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