Russell A. LaGreca

The longtime general manager of Baltimore's Center Club was known for his devotion to customers and staff alike.

October 08, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Russell A. LaGreca, longtime general manager of Baltimore's Center Club whose gracious and efficient manner endeared him to members and their guests for nearly three decades, died Saturday of cancer at his Abingdon home. He was 69.

Mr. LaGreca served as manager of the Baltimore social club, which was founded in 1962, for 26 years until retiring in 2005 because of failing health.

"Russell was about sustained consistency, and that's what he always wanted. He was very good at maintaining the synergy between the club's members and its employees," said John Warnack, who succeeded Mr. LaGreca as manager.

Mr. LaGreca, who spent nearly four decades in club management, was born and raised in Philadelphia, and graduated from Germantown High School in 1957.

Mr. LaGreca studied restaurant management at Cornell University and Temple University.

In the late 1960s, he was working in the advertising department of the old Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia when he took a job at the University & Whist Club in Wilmington, Del.

He later worked as club manager at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, and he was named manager of the Maryland Golf and Country Club in Bel Air in 1972.

In 1979, Mr. LaGreca was appointed manager of the Center Club shortly after its move from its original location at One Charles Center to the Charles Center South Building at Lombard and Light streets.

"He was instrumental in the move of the club to the Legg Mason Building at 100 Light St. in 1986 and establishing its reputation as the top private restaurant in Baltimore," said Phyllis Brotman, a Baltimore public relations executive who was one of the first female members of the club and later its president.

"He was innovative and brought good things to the club. He'd try different things and made them work, such as Seafood Night or Lobster Night, to get members to come back downtown for dinner," Ms. Brotman said. "And they did work."

An impeccable dresser, Mr. LaGreca wore well-tailored, conservatively cut business suits during the day; in the evening, he changed into a black dinner jacket, which he wore with a wing collar.

Bob Bannan has been the Center Club's chef since 1997.

"Russell was the best man I ever worked for in this business. He was a great restaurant manager and humanitarian who looked after his staff," Mr. Bannan said. "He cared deeply about what he was doing and the club environment. I was fortunate to have worked with him."

Mr. Bannan remained close to his former boss after Mr. LaGreca's retirement.

"I'd go to his home with a pot of crab soup, fresh-baked bread and sliced salmon," Mr. Bannan said. "He and his wife, who is a great cook, always invited me for holidays. They're such kind people."

Mr. Warnack recalled Mr. LaGreca's unflappable nature when the ceiling in the main dining room collapsed because of a broken water pipe one day.

"He was steady through it all, and it was no big deal. All we did, at his direction, was move the dining room from the 15th to the 16th floor," he said.

Mr. LaGreca's exacting standards went a long way in building staff loyalty and devotion, Mr. Warnack said.

"At a board meeting shortly after I came here, Russell said, 'We didn't pick John; he picked us.' It was so kind of him to say that," Mr. Warnack said.

"He was a mentor and an inspiration to hundreds of employees who worked at the Center Club during his tenure," Ms. Brotman said.

His wife of 39 years, the former Christina Ann Fergione, added: "He liked dressing up and fine dining, and in his work enjoyed creating a wonderful atmosphere for fine dining."

Mr. LaGreca, who had been an Air Force reservist, was a certified club manager and a member of the Club Managers Association of America.

He enjoyed Italian culture and its food and wine. He liked opera, photography, swimming and golf.

Mr. LaGreca was a communicant at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Abingdon, and was a former parishioner of St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church, 141 Hickory Ave., Bel Air, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. today.

Also surviving are a son, Russell M. LaGreca of Bel Air; two daughters, Maria Sundai Valcich of Baltimore and Joy Christiana Catanese of Media, Pa.; two brothers, John LaGreca of Warrington, Pa., and Richard LaGreca of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; and two grandsons.

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