Nancy D'Alesandro, the matriarch of a Baltimore family that sent loved ones to City Hall and Congress, died Monday at Mercy Medical Center after a heart attack at her lifelong home on Albemarle Street in Little Italy. She was 86.
Mrs. D'Alesandro was a traditional Italian wife from the Old Country who nevertheless raised a namesake daughter who now represents California's 5th Congressional District.
Her husband, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was the legendary mayor of Baltimore from 1947 to 1959 and served multiple terms in the House of Representatives. "Big Tommy" died in 1987. Their son, Thomas D'Alesandro III served a single term as mayor from 1967 to 1971.
"The phone was always ringing here and the kids were always running around," Mrs. D'Alesandro said in a 1985 interview. "When Tommy wasn't here, I had to represent him. One day a young man came in and volunteered to help out answering phones. Well, after half a day he left, saying he wasn't a slave. It was hard work, especially when the kids were young. But it was what made Tommy happy, it was what he wanted to do."
Said her son, "Young Tommy" D'Alesandro III: "She was really the true politician of the family. A worker, she worked the people. I can remember when I was 7 or 8, people lined up around the cormer from our house seeking help."
And by helping the people, Mrs. D'Alesandro helped her family -- an instinctive trait in a working class ethnic neighborhood where women with strong opinions and stronger backs did everything from digging cellars to unloading trucks if that's what it took to make ends meet.
"She was always there when I needed her," said Mr. D'Alesandro Jr. not long before his death. "Every election I ran, Nancy was pregnant. But she'd organize the ladies to address envelopes, write letters and make fliers. Every night she had ravioli and lasagna parties with the neighborhood ladies. She did the work . . ."
Known as Baltimore's first and perhaps only "hands on" first lady, the quiet but forceful Mrs. D'Alesandro not only gave her husband much-heeded advice, but got involved with the people who turned to the family for help.
Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who succeeded Mrs. D'Alesandro's son as the mayor of Baltimore, admired her moxie.
"She was a very fiery woman, loved her kids and was superb to Old Tommy," Mr. Schaefer said. "She was a Democrat through and through and liked only Democrats. If you deviated from the party she had unkind things to say."
Said Eugene Feinblatt, a former adviser to Young Tommy: "She exuded a kind of Old World motherliness when it came to her family but she exhibited a steely strength in time of adversity. She had an almost unerring insight and common sense judgment in the arcane world of politics, which over the years proved of immense value to the political practitioners of her family."
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said simply that Mrs. D'Alesandro's death brings an end to an era that was filled with political giants.
Born Annuciata Lombardi in Italy, Mrs. D'Alesandro immigrated to Baltimore as a child and graduated from the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street in 1926. She went to work as a clerk for A. J. Billig & Co., an auctioneering firm, and though her parents would not let her go to New York to learn the trade, she began to study law at home.
After her 1928 marriage to Mr. D'Alesandro, she managed the legal office they ran out of their Albermarle Street home. Her husband's political office also operated there.
Mrs. D'Alesandro's political work was not always behind the scenes. In a 1951 speech before the Baltimore Council of Jewish Women, she answered questions about her family while making a strong plea for low-cost public housing.
"How can we expect the parents to teach their children love, faith and tolerance when they have no homes?" she said. "When the home fails, the community fails, the nation fails."
Although in recent years she had been active only in the Sodality and other groups at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church, Mrs. D'Alesandro was once active in the American Red Cross Home Nursing Association and the board of the YWCA. In 1953, she was named the first queen of the Flower Mart.
She also obtained a patent for Velvex, a steamer for skin moisturizing.
A Mass of Christian burial for Mrs. D'Alesandro will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Leo's, Stiles and Exeter streets.
Her survivors also include four more sons, Franklin Roosevelt D'Alesandro, Nicholas D'Alesandro, Hector D'Alesandro and Joseph D'Alesandro; and a sister, Verdula Minnie. All are of Baltimore. She is also survived by 16 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.