Casimir A. Potyraj

City Policeman Patrolled The Streets Of Belair-edison, Keeping Residents Safe For More Than Three Decades

July 18, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Casimir A."Wyatt Earp" Potyraj Sr., a retired city police officer who was an ubiquitous presence on Belair-Edison streets for more than three decades, died July 9 of complications from an infection at Franklin Square Hospital Center. He was 84.

The son of Polish immigrants, Mr. Potyraj was born and raised on Elliott Street in Canton.

He attended city public schools until dropping out in 1941 to take a job as a laborer for 28 cents an hour at the old Atlantic-Southwestern Broom Factory in Canton. He was working as an assembler at Crown Cork & Seal Co. when he was drafted into the Navy in 1943.

He served as a coxswain and gunner aboard the battleship USS Arkansas and participated in the Normandy landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

He earned four battle stars while serving in the Atlantic and Pacific, and ended his service as a member of the Navy's Shore Patrol in San Francisco, which whetted his appetite for police work.

"But the war changed me," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 2002 interview. "I was never afraid after the Normandy invasion. Never."

After the war ended, he returned to Crown Cork & Seal, where he worked until joining the Baltimore Police Department in 1956.

Originally assigned to the Eastern District, Mr. Potyraj later worked out of Northeastern District, where he spent the majority of his career.

"He never missed a day of work in 32 years, and there's a plaque on the wall at Northeastern honoring him," said a daughter, Regina M. Potyraj of Annandale, Va.

Mr. Potyraj, who became a welcomed and feared presence during his daily perambulations on his Belair Road beat, was given the nickname "Wyatt Earp" after the popular late 1950s and early 1960s television series that starred Hugh O'Brian.

It was said that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the names, addresses and even the criminal records of those who lived in the neighborhood.

"On old Belair Road, the cry 'Here comes Wyatt!' would scatter any group of kids up to mischief or worse," reported The Baltimore Sun. "It was a fitting nickname for this man with the laser eyes who attempted to keep the corridors of commerce free of teen-age gangs."

"Cas chased us all around. He was a good guy who was just doing his job," said Terry Scordo, a barber and Belair Road native who works at the Hair Harvest barbershop in Parkville.

"We'd grab a six-pack and the next thing you heard were his keys jangling," Mr. Scordo said, laughing. "Don't worry, he knew where you lived, and he'd be there waiting when you came home. Hey, you'd rather get a reaming out from Cas than your parents."

He described him as a "kindhearted cop" who "helped many kids make it out of the neighborhood."

Mr. Scordo recalled that the police officer's requests were always heeded.

"He'd say, 'OK, move along, guys. I'm going around the corner, and when I get back, you better be gone,' " he said.

Richard E. Greenberg, a retired pharmacist, owned the Vilma Pharmacy in the 3400 block of Belair Road from 1960 to 1985.

"He was quite a guy and loved by so many. He took his job seriously and tolerated no nonsense," recalled Dr. Greenberg. "He was on the night shift, and he'd twist very doorknob and look in through the windows. All of the merchants felt totally safe when he was on duty and nothing got by him."

Dr. Greenberg recalled the street's drug dealers disappearing when Mr. Potyraj was on duty.

"He was tough, and they knew it. No one dared give him any guff," he said.

Dr. Greenberg recalled a 3 a.m. phone call from the police officer.

"He said, 'Doc, someone broke into your store, and I have my foot on his head. When I came in, he was busy filling a pillow case with your drugs,' " the druggist recalled. "Cas always went above and beyond his duty. He never was sitting around somewhere. He worked and worked hard."

Dr. Greenberg added: "It was comforting when you left your business to know that Cas was around."

"When he'd go on vacation, crime always soared in the neighborhood," Ms. Potyraj said.

The longtime Overlea resident retired in 1989.

"During his career he touched a lot of lives, and some I'm sure wished he hadn't," Ms. Potyraj said, laughing. "In his retirement, he slowed down a lot, and I remember him saying, 'I think I've walked enough.' "

Mr. Potyraj enjoyed collecting World War II memorabilia.

His wife of 53 years, the fomer Vera Yanuk, died in 2003.

Services were held Monday.

Also surviving are a son, Casimir A. Potyraj Jr. of Ellicott City; another daughter, Cathy Dekker of Detroit; a sister, Regina Semenuk of Ocean City; and a grandson.

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