Dr. G. Lee Russo played jazz piano at a number of venues in the Baltimore area.
Dr. G. Lee Russo played jazz piano at a number of venues in the Baltimore area. (Tara Kneiser)

Dr. G. Lee Russo, a retired neurosurgeon and shock trauma pioneer who played jazz piano at local restaurants, died of cancer Jan. 12 at his Glen Arm home. He was 85.

Born Gerard Lee Russo in Baltimore and raised on Pelham Avenue, he was the son of Leo Carmelo Russo, president of the C.D. Kenny coffee and tea firm, and his wife, Marie Folio. He attended Shrine of the Little Flower School and was a 1951 graduate of Loyola High School. He also studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

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He earned a bachelor’s degree at what is now Loyola University Maryland, where he received the Palma Nobilis prize for excellence in Latin.

“At first he wanted to be a Greek and Latin teacher,” said his daughter, Paula Russo of Lakeville, Conn. “But he changed his mind when he met the physician father of a close school friend.”

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He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and served in the Air Force as a captain and often performed surgeries associated with head and neck injuries.

Dr. Russo had a private practice and worked in a partnership with other surgeons on York Road in Towson.

“He was an excellent neurosurgeon,” said Dr. Michael P. Zimring, a physician who lives in Howard County. “I recall one day consulting with him in the emergency room. He had an unconscious patient who appeared to have a blood clot on the brain. Dr. Russo immediately pulled out a medical instrument, made an incision and the blood clot drained. The patient soon awoke and recovered.

“Lee was a kind, practical guy who was appreciative of anything done for him,” said Dr. Zimring.

Dr. Russo was also chief of neurosurgery at Mercy Medical Center, where he was president of the medical staff, served on the hospital’s board and was chair of the patient quality care committee.

Mercy Medical Center’s president, Thomas R. Mullen, said, “He was a man of many talents. He was soft-spoken and intelligent.”

As a young surgeon, Dr. Russo worked closely with Dr. R Adams Cowley, the founder of the the newly forming University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. They were co-authors of medical studies about brain and spinal injury resulting from accidents.

His daughter, Paula Russo, recalled her father’s bedside manner. “I called my father ‘a country doctor neurosurgeon.’ He spent a lot of time with his patients and would often sit with a family and discuss a case until he felt they absorbed the medical circumstances. He also liked to mentor young physicians who studied with him.”

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Dr. Russo retired more than 20 years ago. At the age of 50 he decided he wanted to play piano in public — he always played at home on a Baldwin 6-foot grand.

He played jazz piano at a the 13th floor at the Belvedere Hotel, the old Society Hill Inn, and most recently Cafe Troia. Family members said he never asked for pay and gave his tips to the wait staff.

“On Saturday nights for a number of years he played along with a bassist — maybe a Towson High School student,” said Lisa Troia Martin, co-owner of Cafe Troia in Towson.

“He played for a couple of hours. He was amazing and so talented. When he retired, he gave us a list of all the songs he knew and he played from memory. His repertoire was amazing.

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“The staff thought of him as their surrogate grandfather. He was a kind, loving guy,” said Ms. Martin.

He was a fan of Thelonius Monk, George Shearing and Erroll Garner. He liked the Duke Ellington composition “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Dr. Russo had a lifelong love of Latin and read classical and medieval Latin texts. He donated his 1,000-volume classical library to Loyola University of Maryland.

After living in Original Northwood on Kelway Road, he moved to Glen Arm and built a perennial garden, fishpond, grape arbor and small orchard, where after he retired he spent much of his day.

“My father was a talented artist and towards the end of his life, he made hand-carved gold pendants for family and and many friends,” said his daughter Paula. “We wear the medallions he made.”

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 9 at the University Baptist Church, 3501 N. Charles St.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 61 years, Mary Jane Nimmo, who worked in research and development in Black and Decker’s medical division; another daughter, Susan Russo Walker of Towson; and three grandchildren.

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