There wasn't much talk of cold beer or of going to war - this was church, after all - but friends of beloved sports broadcaster Chuck Thompson had plenty to remember him by as they gathered outside St. Leo's in Little Italy yesterday.
The longtime radio voice of the Orioles and the Colts was known to Baltimore for his catch phrases "Ain't the beer cold!" and "Go to war, Miss Agnes," but he was known here as a man whose generosity helped buoy a congregation by restoring its church.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., came to honor Thompson for helping to raise nearly $300,000 for a furnace and a new roof for the brick Roman Catholic church on South Exeter Street, where he was a member until his death at age 83 in March.
"Baby Jesus was born in a house with no roof and no furnace," said the Rev. Michael Salerno, St. Leo's pastor, before blessing a plaque recognizing Thompson and his wife, Betty. "We're lucky that we have a nice beautiful home and it's complete.
"We got, downstairs, the furnace, we got the roof over our heads and we got a lot of love in our hearts."
Thompson lent his name to the church's "Raise the Roof" campaign and attended dinners and other events to solicit donations. After he died, Betty Thompson allowed church leaders to continue fundraising in his name.
That brought donations from outside the church, including from fans and other radio personalities, Salerno said. The roof went up this fall and members turned up the furnace for the first time just before Thanksgiving.
"Chuck loved it from the minute he walked in here," Betty Thompson said yesterday, as she stood near the plaque fixed on the church's facade. "Everybody was very generous."
Thompson came to Baltimore in 1949 to broadcast games of the International League Orioles. The Gunther Brewing Co., which owned the team's broadcast rights, threw in the job of calling games for the All America Football Conference Colts.
Thompson retired in 1987, but came back in 1991 to work part time with the Orioles.
Fans remembered his ability to paint a scene from the field, not just call the plays. Many native Baltimoreans said they felt a personal connection with Thompson, whom they invited into their living rooms and their cars for more than half a century.
"Chuck was part of my childhood, our childhood," Ehrlich said outside the church yesterday. "He was part of an era that we probably will never visit again in professional sports."
In 2000, Thompson had to stop calling Orioles games because he suffered from macular degeneration, which made it difficult for him to read documents or follow the ball.
At the Mass that preceded the ceremony honoring Thompson, Salerno dedicated part of his message to the story of St. Lucia, patron saint of blindness.
Betty Thompson said the couple joined the church about six years ago at her husband's urging. They not only attended Mass regularly but also volunteered at festivals and other fundraising events, parishioners said.
St. Leo's has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Its pews were so packed for yesterday's 9:30 a.m. Mass that some decided to stand in the back rather than search for a seat. Some members drive for miles from the suburbs for the Mass, portions of which are conducted in Italian.
But the building itself was in decline even as the congregation grew. The roof, last replaced in the 1980s, leaked so badly that some were concerned religious artwork might be damaged.
Thompson's involvement came at the right time, said Timonium resident Jerry Elliott, a church member who helped coordinate fundraising.
"He chipped right in. He came here all the time and enjoyed the people around him," said Elliott, 74. "He was quite a guy."
Chuck Thompson's lasting gift to church
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