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John Wood, inspiration for 'Roc' and sanitation worker, dies at 80

John Wood has a room filled with junk: steel pots, a wooden foot massager, heavy safe, TV antenna, plates, silver-plated brush, rolling pin, can opener, assorted gold-colored chains, lamps without shades, a New York Yankees baseball hat adorned in glitter.

Everyone else's trash became his treasure, which came easily for Mr. Wood, who worked as a city sanitation worker for more than 35 years. He became one of the nation's most celebrated trash collectors, inspiring the television sitcom "Roc," but he also developed a reputation at home as an anchor for his Northeast Baltimore community.

Mr. Wood died Monday after being punched and falling during a dispute, police say. He was 80.

His death has been ruled a homicide. On Wednesday, police arrested Lorenzo Thornton Jr., 25, and charged him with second-degree murder in the incident.

Mr. Wood's wife often complained that he should leave his work at his workplace — the landfill — but she eventually surrendered and gave Mr. Wood "his room" where he could deposit whatever discarded possessions caught his eye in alleys and trash bins.

While Hattie Wood argued over the worth of each item, she said she could not find fault in what drove Mr. Wood to collect: a lifelong spirit of generosity that went far beyond his meager means.

"He'd say, 'Why are you throwing that out?' " Mrs. Wood recalled. " 'I could fix it. Somebody could use it.' "

His life became the inspiration behind the 1990s television show "Roc," which featured a Baltimore trash collector who relied on hard, honest work and old-school ethics to help neighbors, clean up the community and settle neighborhood disputes.

The show, while lighthearted, took on serious themes such as drug use, gangs, violence and racism. The portrayal didn't stray far from Mr. Wood's life, according to those who knew him. In 1991, after the show premiered, the city of Baltimore proclaimed a day in August "John Wood Day."

"Without a doubt he was definitely the inspiration for the show," said Charles S. Dutton, the actor who played Roc. "The show took on its own life in the three seasons it stayed on and the 75 episodes that we did. But it was actually an easier task for me to play the character because I knew the inspiration was from a real person. I didn't have to invent anything or imagine. The history was all there."

Mr. Dutton grew up in the same Northeast Baltimore neighborhood as Mr. Wood and remembered him as a quiet, physically imposing member of the community. Six feet tall and a former player for the Baltimore Rams semiprofessional football team, Mr. Wood held the attention of young and old, Mr. Dutton said.

"I don't know anyone from way back in the 1960s who didn't like the man," he said. "Even the gangster guys, his generation of gangster guys, the tough guys, had respect for him."

His phone never stopped ringing with requests for help. He was known for helping everyone move, especially people on Social Security. Call, no matter the time of day or night, family members said, and Mr. Wood would appear in his Ford pickup.

He drove people to the hospital, fixed others' appliances and cleared out basements — all for free or a small charge. The payment sometimes came in the form of something that was to be thrown out anyway.

He and Mrs. Wood often delivered food to needy families through SHARE programs. "Sometimes we'd leave at 8 o'clock in the morning and didn't get back until 8 o'clock at night," Mrs. Wood said.

Mr. Wood fixed people's flat tires, loved crab cakes and waded into situations most people avoided.

"He'd see kids fighting in school or people getting in situations and he'd say, 'You don't want to do that, man,' " Mrs. Wood said.

Mr. Dutton, 62, recalled Mr. Wood urging him as a youth to stay away from conflict. But Mr. Dutton went on to serve prison time for manslaughter before he turned his life around and became a Yale-trained Broadway stage and television actor.

"He tried to tell me to go straight and stay out of trouble, so I always had tremendous respect for him," Dutton said. "And lo and behold, in 10 lifetimes I never imagined approaching him to model his life for the show."

Their reunion came when Mr. Dutton and a television producer were researching garbage collectors in Baltimore, looking for a model for their television show. They stumbled upon Mr. Wood toiling in the city's sanitation department making little more than $21,000 a year — but doing his job with uncommon vigor.

"I became enthused about being a trash man," Mr. Wood told The Baltimore Sun in August 1991. "Throwing those cans, it was just like playing baseball. Ducking cans, ducking rats. It was something to keep you in shape."

Mr. Dutton followed Mr. Wood around while preparing to play the role of Roc, listening to his stories and studying Mr. Wood's habits. He had the show's character adopt Mr. Wood's odd hobby.

"I really wanted to learn why he consumed and kept all these things from a garbage route," Mr. Dutton said. "It was somewhat like a hoarder before it became a reality show."

Mr. Wood's intention was always to fix half-broken devices he brought back, though he rarely did, Mrs. Wood said. Still, said Andre Anderson, the fiance of one of Mr. Wood's daughters, there are many homes in Northeast Baltimore that likely contain air conditioners or washers that Mr. Wood found, fixed and donated.

"He had two or three of everything," Mr. Anderson said. "If you needed something, he'd say, 'Don't buy it, I'll see if I got it.' "

Last week, as Mr. Anderson stood in Mr. Wood's room amid mounds of trophies, laundry baskets, plastic tubs, thermoses, cereal boxes, spectacles, cellphones and wooden paper towel dispensers, tears streamed down his face.

"I'm just glad I got the approval from him to marry his daughter," he said.

Nearby, his fiancee, Octavia Wood, studied a fading photograph of her father in a chef's hat and apron. "He liked to hold on to everything," she said.

"He thought if he got rid of something," Mr. Anderson added, "someone would need it later."

A public viewing will take place from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Thursday at Wilson Park Christian Community Church, 4629 York Road, Baltimore. A private viewing for family members will follow. A memorial service, which is open to the public, will begin at the church at 11 a.m.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Wood is survived by five other children, Marena Lewis-Wood, John Wood Jr., Sheldon Faison, Mashelle Faison and Reggie Faison.

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