Hyman Pressman, colorful booster of 'little guy,' dies City comptroller, inveterate politicker had Alzheimer's


Hyman A. Pressman, the irrepressible poetaster, erstwhile civic gadfly and longtime city comptroller, described by associates as "the champion of the little guy," died yesterday of Alzheimer's disease at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. He was 81.

Mr. Pressman came out of East Baltimore talking the 14-year-old boy orator of the 1928 presidential campaign, on the stump for Al Smith. Only old age and infirmity shut him up and ended his politicking.

He became the self-anointed champion of the plain folks, using the taxpayer lawsuit as his lance, tilting at bureaucratic government. He often succeeded at the most unlikely and quixotic quests. He'd poke and poke until he punctured the most thick-skinned politicians.

"It's like he's a folk hero," marveled Frank X. Gallagher, who was City Council president in 1987 after Mr. Pressman won election to his seventh term as comptroller. "Rightly or wrongly, he's the little man's hero."

"He really was a dedicated public official," said Richard A. Lidinsky, who was Mr. Pressman's indispensable deputy for more than 25 years. "His name was really synonymous with good government."

In or out of office, he'd never met a mayor he wouldn't attack. But during the Schaefer administration, he became increasingly isolated and co-opted. He continued to bark, but he was taking smaller and smaller bites.

William Donald Schaefer was president of the City Council in 1967 when he first skirmished with Mr. Pressman.

"He felt it was his duty to protect the interest of the taxpayers," said Mr. Schaefer, who went on to become mayor and governor. "And he had a staff of people who presumed that everybody was dishonest. They had an eye on you all the time.

"Now, I liked that. He knew what his job was," Mr. Schaefer said. "He didn't want to be mayor. He wanted to be comptroller. He never tried to be something he wasn't."

But public office eventually dulled Mr. Pressman's anger and blunted his lance, and in later years he acquiesced in actions that had ignited his wrath when he was a young outsider.

He had really reached his heyday as gadfly in the two decades after World War II and in his early terms as comptroller.

During the war, he served in the Army and became renowned for his legal help in fierce defense of enlisted men at courts-martial hearings. He claimed he never lost a case.

He came back to Baltimore just as eager to do battle for the underdog. He remembered filing his first taxpayer's suit in 1946 in an effort to force the commissioner of motor vehicles to produce an accident report.

He proposed licensing politicians.

He sought an injunction against nonbid purchases of firetrucks.

He squawked about pinball machines at the airport after he lost four nickels in them.

He irritated Mayor Thomas A. D'Alesandro Jr. daily. He complained about the remodeling and reassessment of "Big Tommy's" home in Little Italy.

Mr. Pressman's biggest coup, perhaps, was his battle with the Rivoli Garage project in the 1950s.

He charged that the property was undervalued for taxation and overvalued when it came to getting money from the city. He wanted a probe of the D'Alesandro administration, and got a grand jury investigation and, eventually, indictments.

Among those indicted were Dominic Piracci, the contractor whose daughter would marry Mayor D'Alesandro's son, and J. Neil McCardle, the city comptroller who had beaten Mr. Pressman in the 1951 Democratic primary.

Mr. Pressman had called Mr. McCardle the elder D'Alesandro's "Little Sir Echo." He handed out small scrub brushes and declared: "City Hall needs a good scrubbing." Mr. Pressman was rarely at a loss for a pun, a quip, a slogan or a stanza of doggerel.

He first ran for office in 1938, seeking a seat in the House of Delegates as "Swing Maestro" Pressman. He drew 1,000 people to a jitterbug and jive "swing session" in Hampden.

"Hymie," as he always was called, loved to dance whether it was in a ballroom or doing a jig in the annual St. Patrick's Day parades. He was an uninhibited if not necessarily expert dancer.

"I am an independent candidate with no financial or political debts," he told the 4th District electorate. "I shine no man's shoes, nor wear any man's collar. My conscience is my guide, the truth is my sword and my record is my shield."

But despite swing, truth and independence, he lost to political boss James H. "Jack" Pollack's candidate in the Democratic primary.

"Pollack is a pathological, pretentious peacock," he said. In riposte, Mr. Pollack called Mr. Pressman "a publicity pandering, pettifogging, pompous popinjay."

Mr. Pressman continued filing suits. He fought pay raises for the mayor, comptroller and City Council. He wrote one of his first "poems":

Every last one of them voted aye

To give themselves raises to the sky.

He took his case all the way to the Court of Appeals and won a rollback in 1956. But it must be said that Mr. Pressman took pay raises with little protest after he became comptroller winning for the first time in 1963 as a Republican.

Mr. Pressman had lost in the Democratic primary, but ran with Theodore R. McKeldin on the Republican ticket and won. He was sworn in May 21, 1963. Four years later, he returned to the Democratic fold and won re-election.

"I plan to speak out on all aspects of public affairs in the state, as I always have," he said.

He had an unabashed fondness for celebrity. He wrote his own news releases, memorized the deadlines of the city's daily newspapers and had television lights installed in his City Hall VTC office so cameramen would not have to bring their own electrical equipment for TV interviews.

His crusades occasionally had a goofy side. He came out against shooting pigeons at City Hall. He installed instead 144 plastic owls on the building after testing the scare value of a live horned owl.

He found duplicity in the old-fashioned "claw" machines that were once in arcades: The prizes were weighted so they'd drop off the "claw" lift.

Mr. Pressman also found time to welcome visiting dignitaries with enthusiasm and write scores of poems about Baltimore and Baltimoreans that he later published in a 135-page book entitled, "Watchdog of Baltimore."

One poem, to his secretary, was quoted for years at City Hall:

Happy Birthday, Miss Anita

You are trimmer than a cheetah

Five foot two

You look just like new

Who'd want anything sweeta?

But he also led the legal attack on petitions challenging Maryland's 1963 public accommodations law. He joined a rally ++ with Dick Gregory and Jackie Robinson on the eve of passage of the 1964 federal civil rights bill.

His civil rights ardor cooled when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) made Baltimore a "target city." The municipal magpie became increasingly shrill.

In the aftermath of the 1968 riots, he said the state police and National Guard had been too restrained. Mr. Pressman said then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew was perfectly reasonable in saying that it was OK to shoot looters.

In the 1960s, he consistently criticized the War on Poverty. He led a safari of newsmen on hunts for anti-war posters at the old City Hospitals and Black Panther posters at the Department of Social Services. He scored the American Civil Liberties Union as "infiltrated by subversives."

So by his last campaign in 1987, Mary W. Conaway, one of his opponents, could complain that there were few blacks among his employees.

"Mr. Pressman talks about his civil rights record," she chided, "but that's 20 years ago. I'm talking about here and now."

But he never lost his love of parades, festivals and publicity. He invariably pranced near the head of the march on "I Am an American Day," St. Patrick's Day and Pulaski Day.

After a stroke in 1989, his health and acumen deteriorated. He remained in office, supported by old friends, loyal aides and a sentimental city.

After leaving office in 1991, Mr. Pressman moved to Levindale, where he lived quietly until his death.

Mr. Pressman was born April 23, 1914 Shakespeare's birthday, he delighted in telling people. He grew up on Lombard Street near Central Avenue in a modest house without hot water. He remembered going to the old Municipal Baths for showers.

It was a fairly tough neighborhood. "I never was much of a shrinking violet," he said. "I would get in the thick of things with the other boys."

He retained a kind of macho streak all his life. He was short, sandy haired and pugnacious, and followed a fairly rigorous exercise routine into his 70s. He was always telling people how many push-ups he could do.

His parents were Jewish immigrants. His father, Sol, was a pants-maker who earned $21 a week in a downtown factory. He died when Mr. Pressman was 14. Then he and his brother, Albert, helped out their mother, Esther. Mr. Pressman attended school by day and worked nights.

"I used to sell flowers, peanuts, papers at ball games and parades," he said. "Anything to make a buck."

At 17, he worked in Howard W. Jackson's mayoral campaign. Mr. Jackson won and Mr. Pressman got an $18-a-week job in the city highway department. He enrolled at the University of Baltimore's night law school and graduated in two years. He passed the bar at 19, but had to wait two years to practice. The minimum age was 21.

Mr. Pressman even met his wife, the former Annabelle Komitzsky, through politics. She was a member of the ladies auxiliary of an organization he founded the Baltimore Young Democrats. They were married Feb. 7, 1937.

He was an Orthodox Jew, and strictly observed the Sabbath. City Hall reporters noted that Mr. Pressman would walk home, rather than ride, if his office work kept him past sundown Friday evenings. He was then unreachable until sundown Saturday.

He started each day with morning prayers at the Shaarei Zion synagogue in Northwest Baltimore, where he had been a member for more than 50 years, said his daughter, Sheila Sylvia Stark of Northwest Baltimore.

Services will be held at 4 p.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Bros., 6010 Reisterstown Road.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Pressman is survived by a son, Lester Saul Pressman of Bene Brak, Israel; his brother, Albert I. Pressman of Pikesville; and seven grandchildren.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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