Betty Piskor, neighborhood advocate, dies

Artist, Canton historian, Polish heritage advocate fought the Interstate highway in the 1960s

November 22, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Betty Piskor, a Canton historian and Polish heritage advocate who belonged to the band of activists who fought a planned Interstate highway through her Southeast Baltimore neighborhood, died Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications from surgery. She was 82 years old and had lived on Fait Avenue for nearly six decades.

Born Betty Wlodarski in Pittsburgh, she was fifth of eight children and was raised in orphanages and foster homes throughout most of her youth. She moved to Southeast Baltimore when she was 16 to care for the children of her sister Catherine, who found herself stranded here when the sponsor of a marathon dance contest skipped town with prize money she had been promised.

She met a longshoreman, Joseph Piskor, married and settled in Canton. The couple had six children before he died of a blood disorder in 1963. She had recently given birth to a daughter and had five other children, all under the age of 13.

"She was a very, very strong woman," said her daughter, Brenda Piskor Prevas of Towson. "She was proud and did not like to accept charity. When the church dropped off a ham and groceries, she cried long and hard. I don't know if she accepted the gift."

Mrs. Piskor used her husband's insurance policy to pay off her home, where she lived until her death. She also learned to drive a car and returned to night school to earn her General Educational Development diploma. She also earned an associate's degree in art education and occupational therapy from the old Baltimore Community College.

She later told her children she would only give them her blessing in marriage if they had completed college and traveled overseas to see a bit of the world and its culture.

She became involved in the Fells Point Art Gallery in the 1970s and sketched alongside artists Grace Hartigan and Fay Chandler. In the 1980s she became the assistant curator of the old Baltimore Public Works Museum on President Street until she retired.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as many row houses were torn down in Canton for a planned Interstate highway, Mrs. Piskor became politically active. She joined others to fight the route through Fells Point and Canton.

She used her art training to make the protest placards used in demonstrations. To raise money to battle the road, residents created a Fells Point Fun Festival, which attracted thousands to the harbor neighborhoods. As her contribution, Mrs. Piskor drove her pop-up camper to use as a first-aid and lost child station.

Mrs. Piskor served on the Canton- Highlandtown Community Association's committees for decades. Her daughter said her thirst for knowledge led her to research the history of the Canton area, and she became known as a Canton historian. She gave neighborhood tours, and her dream was to found a museum dedicated to Canton history.

She also prodded officials to put a children's playing area on Toone Street, so mothers would not have to lead their youngsters on long walks to Patterson Park.

In a 2005 Baltimore Sun article, Mrs. Piskor described her Christmas ritual. Christmas breakfast was the main event in her home. "You can smell it cooking all the way down the block," the article said.

She prepared a Polish peasant soup from a recipe that includes homemade sausage she made with her daughters on Christmas Eve. She boiled sausage in water and then enriched the broth with beaten eggs and a little vinegar. She then served the mixture over bits of bread, sliced sausage, diced ham, boiled eggs and a little horseradish.

Her family would exchange gifts and then have more soup and a ham or a sausage sandwich on rye, along with potato salad and coleslaw, which she had made.

Mrs. Piskor also was called upon to give tours of St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church, where she has been an active member for more than 60 years. She led the parish Girl Scout troop for over 10 years, taught art in the parish school, served as Eucharistic minister, and, during a major renovation in the 1970s, climbed a scaffold inside the church to touch up murals that had been damaged over time.

She once carried home a damaged plaster image of the baby Jesus, used in the church nativity display. She mended the statue's fingers and toes on her dining room table.

"This was once a Polish church," she said in a Sun interview in 2001, when new families were moving into the once predominantly Polish community.

"Immigrants needed a place where they could come," she said in the story. "That's the story of all churches, German, Italian. Everyone had to have a foundation and usually it was the church. Your social life was your church, too, your weddings, your meetings. Everything was your church. And they all spoke the same language."

She recalled how Polish immigrants and their children worked in factories and canneries right in the parish — like Gibbs', Libby's, Maryland Chief, American Can and the Tin Decorating Co. She said the men in the parish would go to Sparrows Point and work in the steel mills.

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