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M. Sigmund ‘Sig’ Shapiro, leader in the Port of Baltimore and musical philanthropist, dies

File photo: M. Sigmund Shapiro.
File photo: M. Sigmund Shapiro.(GENE SWEENEY JR)

M. Sigmund “Sig” Shapiro, a philanthropist who was active in the Port of Baltimore, died of Alzheimer’s disease complications Tuesday at his North Roland Park home. He was 92.

Born Moritz Sigmund Shapiro in Baltimore and raised in Reservoir Hill’s Lake Drive, he was the son of Samuel Shapiro, who owned a foreign freight forwarding business and his wife, Hilda Levy, a homemaker.

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He was a 1945 graduate of Baltimore City College. He attended Johns Hopkins University but left classes to help his father run the family business, which was involved with the recovery of European ports after World War II. The U.S. government also made Mr. Shapiro and his father responsible for shipping grain to parts of the world where agriculture had been disrupted by the conflict.

The firm, Samuel Shapiro & Co., was founded in 1915 in a one-room office with a $5 roll-top desk.

The son advised clients on transporting goods around the world. He worked with changes in shipping, including containerization, during his career and was a consultant to President Jimmy Carter on the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties regarding the Panama Canal.

A 2001 Sun story said the firm, now operated by his daughter, Marjorie “Margie” Shapiro, was one of Maryland’s oldest and most influential companies associated with the Port of Baltimore.

Mr. Shapiro’s father had lobbied the state legislature to create the Maryland Port Authority.

A Sun story said that in his early years working with his father, the pair clashed constantly.

“Samuel Shapiro resisted modernizing the facility, so his son would make changes and convince his father they were his idea,” a 2001 Sun story said. “Sigmund finally became head of the company at age 40. But while they differed on management styles, the two Shapiros were insistent on keeping the business in the family.”

Mr. Shapiro was a close observer of the workings and fortunes of the port.

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In a 1997 letter to The Sun, he said, "The proposed acquisition of Conrail by Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads may not be on everyone’s list of earth-shaking events, but the general public has more at stake in this issue than many realize.

“This is especially true in Maryland, where the merger promises to help us regain some of the edge our rail freight shipping system has lost in recent years — an edge vital to keeping Baltimore and Maryland competitive and our state economy strong," he wrote.

M. Sigmund "Sig" Shapiro was a proponent of port and rail modernization and had long backed plans that would move freight through the city more efficiently. 1966 photo
M. Sigmund "Sig" Shapiro was a proponent of port and rail modernization and had long backed plans that would move freight through the city more efficiently. 1966 photo(NOLAN/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

He was a proponent of port and rail modernization and had long backed plans that would move freight through the city more efficiently.

Baltimore’s port was served “by the best railroad freight system in America,” he said in the 1997 letter.

“The current tunnel heights make accommodating double-stacked loads extremely difficult, giving a competitive advantage to those states that can handle taller loads,” he wrote.

He met his wife, the former Barbara Kloze, at the Lyric Theatre. He and his firm were in charge of transporting the sets and costumes for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo from Europe to Baltimore for the dance ensemble.

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Mr. Shapiro was a self-taught jazz pianist who admired Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He sat in with sessions alongside Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Wilder and Wynton Marsalis.

“He was a nonprofessional who was allowed to play and perform at The Prime Rib,” his wife said of the Mount Vernon restaurant.

He and his wife endowed a scholarship for jazz students at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He also gave scholarships to Johns Hopkins’ School of Arts and Sciences and at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. He also supported a jazz program at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

He also created a mitzvah fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Mr. Shapiro regularly entertained at the piano with friends on Thursday nights.

“I don’t think he could read music and if you could tell him about, or hum, a tune you heard 10 years ago, he could play it and improvise on it, too. He was amazing,” said Shale Stiller, an attorney and regular guest at the musical evenings.

“He could also do The New York Times crossword puzzle in no time,” Mr. Stiller said. “If he got stumped, he’d call [a friend] Walter Sondheim.

“He had a brilliant mind. He knew more custom law than 99% of the customs law lawyers in the country,” Mr. Stiller said.

M. Sigmund "Sig" Shapiro is pictured in 2001 with his daughter, Marjorie “Margie” Shapiro, at Samuel Shapiro & Co., a family business since 1915.
M. Sigmund "Sig" Shapiro is pictured in 2001 with his daughter, Marjorie “Margie” Shapiro, at Samuel Shapiro & Co., a family business since 1915. (JOHN MAKELY)

Mr. Shapiro also played poker for years with a group of friends. He was a voracious reader of history and he loved to talk politics. He played bridge and loved puns, occasionally writing a parody of a popular song.

He was a past vice president of the National Customs House Brokers and Forwarders Association of America. He was also a past president of the Baltimore division of the organization.

Services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at Sol Levinson and Brothers.

In addition to his wife of 63 years, a retired Baltimore City Schools elementary teacher, and his daughter, survivors include a son, Robert Shapiro of Bethesda; another daughter, Rosellen Bloomberg of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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