Octogenarian who died after mugging was an ageless charmer in a violent time


Although 88 years old, Frank Altman was the consummate salesman until the end.

Baltimore -- the city in which he grew up and loved -- was his theater. Five days a week, rain or shine, the diminutive Mr. Altman hit the streets in his large black Buick working his 350 sales accounts for the Harry C. Walterhoefer Paper Co.

He was a vision from another time. His old, somewhat tattered sports jackets would be brimming with order books, pens, newspaper clippings, and pencils. An expensive Stetson usually covered the remaining gray wisps of hair and he could talk, animated and sharp.

In figuring his receipts for the bakeries, taverns and small food stores he worked, Frank Altman never used a calculator. He trusted his brain and was rarely off a penny. And word through the company was that the old man kept money in the trunk of his car to replace any company losses from robberies.

"He would replace it with his own money because he was afraid he would be fired, he being such an old man in these neighborhoods that they were taking advantage of him," a top company official said.

On Wednesday, Frank Altman became Baltimore's 287th homicide victim of 1992. He was buried yesterday at the Beth Tfiloh Congregation Cemetery. Detectives say he was mugged and robbed of his wallet and suffered a fatal heart attack while resisting his attacker on Wolfe Street near North Avenue.

On the day of Mr. Altman's funeral, members of the Violent Crimes Fugitive Task Force comprising city, Baltimore County and state police arrested Tony A. Lawson, 30, of the 1900 block of E. North Ave. and charged him with first-degree murder, robbery and assault in connection with the attack.

Sam Ringgold, a city police spokesman, said Mr. Lawson was arrested based on information from witnesses in the neighborhood where the attack occurred. The suspect was ordered held without bail.

While apparently well off financially, Frank Altman seemed to be uneasy with his success. He retained his thirst for life, knowledge and human contact. The Eastern European work ethic never left him, yet he managed to express his individualism in such a unique way, and at the speed of sound.

"He was always on time and always had a story," said Sol Lemberger, former owner of Wasserman and Lemberger Meats, 610 Reisterstown Road. "He came to the store whether you needed something or not," said Mr. Lemberger, who still works part-time at the kosher store. "Frank always said to never call a customer on the telephone, to go see him. He was an old-time salesman, a fine man."

There was another, more private, side to Frank Altman, too, that was overshadowed by his frenetic life as a street salesman for a company that sold paper goods, institutional foods, party supplies and janitorial items..

According to John Walterhoefer, president of the firm for which Mr. Altman worked, "he was worth a for tune. He was quite well off. He owned lots of houses, lots of them, in Baltimore City. And, while remaining very frugal with his wardrobe from the 1950s, he was also very successful playing the stock market."

For more than 30 years, Mr. Walterhoefer said, Mr. Altman owned Altman Paper Co., near Hollins Market. He sold the firm to the Walterhoefer family in 1977 and continued to work for the firm "for the love of selling, of being with people."

"He was a natural salesman," said Mr. Walterhoefer. "His was the way of gentle persuasion."

"Earlier this year, he came into the office and said he had just been robbed," Mr. Walterhoefer said. "Then he went on to say he confronted the two thugs and asked them, 'How can you rob an old man like me? These are only a few dollars. Give them back to me.'

"And you know," the company president said, "the bandits gave him back his money!"

On Wednesday, Frank Altman was driving to meet a customer when his Buick collided with a beer truck about 4 p.m. in the 1800 block of N. Wolfe St., police said. When Mr. Altman got out of his car, a man grabbed him by the neck from behind and wrestled him to the ground.

Although the old man attempted to resist, the thief made off with his wallet. Mr. Altman was later pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Hospital -- the victim of an apparent heart attack triggered by the attack. Mr. Altman would have turned 89 Dec. 26.

"He loved meeting the people, that's why he liked the streets," his widow, Toba Altman, 79, said. "He found them fascinating."

"We sat at the breakfast table every morning after reading the paper and we talked about the danger in the streets," she said. "He never carried a weapon. Subconsciously, I always thought this could happen."

Schlomo Moinzadeh, proprietor of Schlomo's Meat and Fish Market in Pikesville, said he knew Mr. Altman three years and admired his spirit.

"He sold me bags, butcher paper," said Mr. Moinzadeh. "He was a nice man, all the time. He had a good personality, wasn't lazy. He was a peaceful man."

Alex Pais, president of the Pariser's Bakery -- a Baltimore tradition for 104 years -- knew three things about Frank Altman:

"He was always on time, he worked hard and he took care of his customers. What more could you want? He was a very nice old man."

The death of Mr. Altman "hurt me very much and I hope that he's in heaven," said Hossein Fatemi, owner of Fredy's Famous Chicken and Chips at Mondawmin Mall.

"I always joked with him that he was really 30 or 40 years old," FTC Mr. Fatemi said. "I wanted to take him to Atlantic City and have some fun but he would never go. Work. Work. Work. He was never afraid. He was a special friend."

It wasn't in the fiber of Frank Altman to surrender, said his widow.

His toughness was shaped in the Polish village of Brest on the border of Russia. His father came to America first, then was followed by his wife and three children, including Frank. The family entered the United States in Canton and stayed there until later moving to Forest Park. Frank Altman went to P.S. 40 on Aisquith Street and was graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

"He always thought he could have been a good college professor, but he had to go to work to help support the family," said his widow.

Mr. Altman attended synagogue twice every Saturday. He was an avid Civil War buff and had been reading two books when he was killed -- "The Last Czar" and a book about Harry S. Truman.

"He was always learning, growing," Mrs. Altman said. "He was very outspoken and held opinions on everything under the sun."

He had two children from a previous marriage, Dr. Arnold Jerome Altman, chief of staff of the pediatric oncology department at the University of Connecticut at Hartford, and Tova Effron of White Plains, N.Y. There are three surviving grandchildren.

"He had everything down pat, planned," said Mr. Walterhoefer. "For his sales territories, he would go to the inner city on Mondays, North Baltimore and the county on Tuesdays, the city's eastside on Wednesdays, the Edmondson Village area Thursdays and the northeast section on Friday.

"He was killed on Wednesday, on the east side.

"We always tried to convince him to retire," said the company president. "We always tried to convince him he was too old to be doing this kind of stuff. But he would never give up. Never. He thought that if he quit his job he would die."

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