The elves wore blue

Every year, Pete O'Neal enlists police officers to deliver toys and joy to children on Christmas

December 22, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

The heat descended on the building about 9 p.m. Thursday, sirens blaring, red and blue lights flashing and creating an almost hypnotic, strobe-light effect. The cops emerged from their cars and entered Mason Memorial Church of God in Christ in the 2600 block of Frederick Ave.

"I thought they were raiding the church," observed Wayne Thomas, who was standing nearby. "I've never seen a church get raided before."

In a way, Thomas was right: Mason Memorial was being raided. But the cheers, the applause, the whoops of sheer glee and delight from church members as police went into the church should have been the tip-off: these churchgoers loved this kind of raid.

Each police officer carried an armful of toys into Mason Memorial. Every year, the church gives donated toys to poor children. This year, the charity that usually gives the church toys didn't have enough. Some members put out a call; Pete O'Neal answered that call.

"God said, `Don't worry about it,'" O'Neal told parishioners after they gathered inside the church. "God said, `I've got some angels I'm gonna send your way.'"

These angels had badges. They included police officers from Baltimore, including brass - as represented by Col. Rick Hite - beat cops and cadets. There were Howard County cops and Baltimore County cops.

There were Maryland state troopers and deputies from the sheriff's departments of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Carroll counties. There were cops from the Annapolis Police Department, the Baltimore City School Police, the Coppin State University campus police, the University of Baltimore police, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police and the please-forgive-me-if-you-aren't-mentioned-here police.

Several corrections officers, who aren't usually thought of as being in law enforcement but who most certainly are, were also on hand. (Rest in peace, David McGuinn and Russell Wroten.)

O'Neal is the reason all those law enforcement officials - known in the rough-and-tumble Southwest Baltimore neighborhood where Mason Memorial is located as Five-O or the Po-Po - were bearing gifts. Fourteen years ago, his mother, Jeromia O'Neal, was bludgeoned to death and robbed in her East Baltimore home. O'Neal, a cameraman at WMAR television, is the one who found the body.

Rather than give in to bitterness and hatred, O'Neal organized an annual toy drive for poor kids, in memory of his mother. Every December for the past nine years, law enforcement officials have gathered at WMAR, loaded up patrol cars with toys and headed out in a caravan to deliver the booty to eager tykes across the city.

The caravan pulled out from the WMAR parking lot about 6:30 p.m. and headed down York Road. Sgt. Arthur Betts, a 17-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, drove the third car in the caravan. Glancing into his rearview mirror, Betts estimated that the trail of patrol cars with blinking red and blue lights extended back some six to eight blocks.

"It's kind of nice to see it's for something good," Betts said of the trail of police cars. "Usually, it's for the funeral of a police officer."

After York Road turned into Greenmount Avenue, the caravan turned left onto North Avenue, headed down to Wolfe Street and then turned right. After another right onto Monument Street the cars halted for the first stop: the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

"Since you're here, I'm going to put you to work," O'Neal told me, completely ignoring The Sun ID badge I had dangling from my neck. Soon I found myself with an armful of toys, heading into Kennedy Krieger with a bunch of law enforcement personnel.

For one of the few times in my life, I was 100 percent sure I wouldn't be mugged on a Baltimore street.

O'Neal led a rousing chorus of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; Kennedy Krieger staffers and kiddies returned the courtesy. The scene was repeated at the Upton Boxing Center, the Ronald McDonald House, the Salvation Army and Mason Memorial.

The children "are so used to seeing [police officers] in a whole other light," O'Neal said of why he has police officers deliver presents. "They're used to seeing him throw somebody up against a wall. Maybe the next time they see a cop, the kids will see him in a different light. Maybe they'll remember when a police officer did something nice for 'em - how they came to visit and brought 'em gifts and sang for 'em."

You kind of get the feeling Jeromia O'Neal would approve of that. Pete O'Neal may or may not know it. In fact, he didn't even bring it up, so I'll have to tell him.

She's smiling up there, Pete.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.