Paul J. Coco, a personnel manager at the Hecht Co. in The Mall in Columbia, is learning a new lesson in customer service, overseeing more than 200 volunteers who want to make Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Baltimore next month a success.
Mr. Coco is the first coordinator of volunteer services for a papal visit to Maryland, home to more than 907,000 Catholics. Thirteen volunteers from Howard County are among his corps.
"It's going to be exciting," said Mr. Coco, reclining in a chair in his second-floor office at Hecht's last week. "It's going to be something."
Among the planned papal events: a parade, concert, museum exhibit, and trolley tour of historic churches in Baltimore, Mr. Coco said. A Mass will be celebrated Oct. 8 in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, attended by parishioners who were able to get one of the 47,000 free tickets distributed by lottery at their churches.
Mr. Coco and his corps of volunteers, who cross denominational lines, are working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the events flow smoothly.
"It's a logistical nightmare," said Mr. Coco, who estimates that he spends at least 20 hours a week on the papal visit. "Imagine a man of this magnitude coming to this city."
About half of the 200 volunteers do office work in preparation for the visit. Others have worked on such tasks as providing the 10,000 press credentials that will be needed.
"It's a real mix of people," said Mr. Coco of Catonsville. "We have people of all ages -- teen-agers, young adults, elderly people and professional people, and those who are on a sabbatical or retired."
Chemical engineer James E. Van Wyk, 46, of Columbia's Kings Contrivance village also worked as a volunteer in crowd control when the pope visited Chicago in 1979.
"It was really a lot of fun," he said. "It was not only a fun experience, it was a good uplifting experience.
Every Saturday morning, Mr. Van Wyk and his wife, Marie, perform office work and other duties at the Papal Visit Office in Baltimore. He'll guide the trolley tour of old churches.
Praising Mr. Coco's friendliness and organizational prowess, Mr. Van Wyk said Mr. Coco has helped to make the experience enjoyable.
Mr. Coco agreed that his organizational skills, coupled with his experience at Hecht's, have helped him in his role as volunteer coordinator.
"My role is very much like that of a personnel manager," said Mr. Coco, who also has experience as a volunteer at the Department of Natural Resources.
As coordinator, he interviewed a number of volunteers, set up a database to keep track of the workers and created a 75-page volunteer manual, delineating policy and procedures and the duties of each.
That level of organization is in sharp contrast to the situation he found a year ago, when he first volunteered to do data entry and word processing work for the papal visit that later was canceled after the pope injured his hip. For that visit, there was no volunteer coordinator, he said.
"We had so many people interested in volunteering, we didn't know what to do with them," Mr. Coco recalled. But the Rev. Michael White, executive director of the papal visit program for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, asked Mr. Coco in April whether he would be coordinator this time around. "I said yes."
In June, the volunteers moved into a first-floor room in the Columbus Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. They have at least 20 computers to help expedite their operation.
Mr. Coco said he and other papal visit volunteers didn't volunteer just so they could see the pope -- they wanted to help make the historic event a success. "It kind of rejuvenates my optimism in humanity," he said.
Two local volunteers, Dr. Maria Pane-Smith, a pediatrician, and her husband, William Smith, of Kings Contrivance village, met the pope in Rome in the spring during Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler's pilgrimage. They said the experience inspired them to volunteer for the Baltimore visit.
"Both my husband and I got a special blessing," said Dr. Pane-Smith, who with her husband will collect photographs, articles and other materials on the pope and create a commemorative book for Cardinal Keeler. "We decided to do this as a way to give back."
Mr. Coco, who attends St. Joseph Monastery in Irvington, is unsure whether he will meet the pope because he doesn't know what his specific duties will be Oct. 8. But he still has his memories of 1979, when he saw the pope at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
"He passed through right where I was standing. . . . I shook his hand," Mr. Coco recalled, smiling. "I can't describe it in words. It was just a neat feeling to be that close -- shake his hand."