Thomas D’Alesandro III, a former Baltimore mayor affectionately known as “Young Tommy” and member of a storied political family, died at his North Baltimore home Sunday of stroke complications.
He was 90 years old.
The oldest brother of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mr. D’Alesandro was mayor for one tumultuous term, from 1967 to 1971, that was marked by the 1968 riots, racial strife and strikes by city laborers, bus drivers and symphony musicians.
But it was also a time of rebuilding what even then was an aging city, and one that was losing both residents and political power to the growing suburbs. As Baltimore’s 42nd mayor, he opened schools, built a new police headquarters and pushed for open housing. Mr. D’Alesandro got Baltimoreans to approve an $80 million bond issue to build schools. He devised summer recreation programs — mobile pools, day camps — for city youth. And he laid legislative groundwork for the Inner Harbor development.
In a statement, Ms. Pelosi wrote that her brother “was the finest public servant I have ever known” who “dedicated his life to our city.”
“A champion of civil rights, he worked tirelessly for all who called Baltimore home,” she wrote. “Tommy was a leader of dignity, compassion and extraordinary courage, whose presence radiated hope upon our city during times of struggle and conflict.”
His son, Nick D’Alesandro, 62, said his father contributed to various causes throughout his life, carrying “strong beliefs” that people “should contribute to the times in which they live.”
“I was consistently astonished by his incredible generosity," Nick D’Alesandro said. “I can’t recall how many times he foot the bill during get-togethers with other people.”
Nick recalled that when he was a teenager, he once said to his father “nice guys finish last,” which immediately earned a rebuke.
“He said, ‘That’s not right! Nice guys finish first! Nice guys finish first!’ ” Nick said.
D’Alesandro was a man of conviction, the type every young boy wants to grow up to become, said his grandson, Matt D’Alesandro, 21, of Baltimore.
He liked telling a story of a business owner who had donated to his mayoral campaign later trying to call in a political favor once he was elected, the grandson said.
“He wrote them a check back for the amount they donated," Matt D’Alesandro said. "He would not be bought.”
Thomas D’Alesandro, who took office vowing to “root out every cause or vestige of discrimination,” remained proud throughout his life of his progressive record on civil rights. As City Council president, he worked with Mayor Theodore McKeldin, a liberal Republican, to eliminate racial barriers in employment, education and other areas. As mayor, he appointed multiple African Americans to his administration, some of them, such as George Russell Jr., the city solicitor and member of the Board of Estimates, the first African Americans to hold those positions.
Nick said his father’s positions on civil rights are still a point of pride for the family. He said he can still remember stories his father told him about going to meetings where residents would throw up the Nazi salute in protest as well as spit on religious leaders for supporting desegregation and equal rights for black people.
D’Alesandro III was a “transitional mayor,” said Peter N. Marudas, who served as chief of staff to both him and McKeldin, his predecessor.
“He gave his all to the city,” Marudas said. “He was able to keep the momentum of the city going and then to hold it together as it had entered a new phase.”
D’Alesandro’s handling of the riot and the societal upheaval that came with the Vietnam War led the late Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a leading Baltimore civil rights activist, to call him “the greatest mayor in Baltimore’s modern history,” Marudas said.
“He brought the city through the most difficult period in its history since the Civil War,” Marudas said. “He really carried that burden and he did it in a way without polarizing or dividing the city.”
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in a statement that Mr. D’Alesandro “guided the city at a tumultuous time and made important strides while in office." He cited efforts Mr. D’Alesandro made in “removing racial barriers in employment and education and laying the groundwork for what would become the world-famous Inner Harbor."
“He will always be remembered for his commitment to and love for Baltimore,” Young said.
Gov. Larry Hogan wrote in a statement that Mr. D’Alesandro “will long be remembered for his leadership in divisive times, and for his efforts to root out discrimination and rebuild the city he loved.”
Before his death, Mr. D’Alesandro was a courtly grandfather of 10 who favored big band music and wore a jacket and tie to Baltimore Orioles baseball games.
He was the son of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., known as “Big Tommy” or “Tommy the Elder,” a longtime mayor and congressman whom many credit with bringing major league baseball back to Baltimore. But “Young Tommy" left his own mark on the city.
He began his political career in 1956 with a seat on the Board of Elections Supervisors. He was just out of the Army, four years out of the University of Maryland Law School. He attended then-Loyola College as an undergraduate.
He became president of the City Council in 1962 after the previous office holder, Philip H. Goodman, replaced a mayor who had resigned to accept a judgeship.
In 1967, he ran for mayor. He beat future Orioles owner Peter Angelos for the Democratic nomination, then soundly defeated Republican Arthur Sherwood in the general election. The city had 555 polling places; Mr. D’Alesandro was fond of reminding people he’d won every one of them.
Mr. D’Alesandro often said no white man in the city of Baltimore during the time was better engaged with the city’s black community than he was. Upon winning office, he selected African Americans for key positions, including the first African American leaders of the city’s schools and the fire department.
At times, he displayed a hot streak. At one point while mayor, his appointments to the school board took a beating in a television news report. Watching at home over dinner, D'Alesandro got up, drove to the station and went on the air to defend himself.
But his tenure would be defined, and some say ended, by the riots in April 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which left six people dead, 700 injured and thousands of businesses damaged or destroyed in Baltimore. Many believed Mr. D’Alesandro, who had been expected to seek reelection, became disillusioned after the riot and decided to return to private life. Mr. D’Alesandro, a father of five, said it was a financial decision — taking home $696 every two weeks as mayor just wasn’t enough to support his family.
Still, he acknowledged the toll of leading a city struggling with racial tensions, crime and poverty. While he was known for his ability to draw federal funds to the city, the needs were so great that local taxes were raised more than 20% during his tenure.
“Somewhere along the line my strength started to sap,” he told The Sun in 1970. “It’s like a guy going to war. You can’t stay in the trenches for four years and fight as well in the fourth as you did in the first.”
Still, he was credited with bringing bright young people to City Hall, some of whom continue to play major roles in Baltimore’s civic life: His housing commissioner, Robert C. Embry, is now president of the Abell Foundation; a school board appointee, Larry Gibson, went on to mastermind the campaigns of Kurt L. Schmoke, the first African American elected as Baltimore mayor; and another aide, Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman, had a long career in top city and state government posts, including appointment to the Kirwan commission.
When he left City Hall, Mr. D’Alesandro dusted off his law degree and, rather than sign on with one of the city’s premier law firms, he instead practiced workers’ compensation and personal injury law.
The late Gilbert Sandler, an advertising man much involved in civic affairs, once told The Baltimore Sun he believed Mr. D’Alesandro “was defeated by history. Not only was Mr. D’Alesandro destroyed by the riots and never recovered, the city never recovered.”
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None of Mr. D’Alesandro’s five children is in politics. He and his father remain the only father-son duo to have held the office of mayor, making the D’Alesandro family perhaps the closest thing to political royalty in Baltimore.
And in fact, his June 8, 1952, wedding to Margaret Piracci at the Basilica of the Assumption drew so many thousands to its grounds that the fire department began turning people away, according to The Sun’s coverage, headlined “D’Alesandro Wedding - Ceremony, Pomp and Mass Revelry.” The receiving line at the Emerson Hotel reception was nearly three hours long, and two women reportedly fainted in the crowd.
The dynasty, born over 60 years ago in Little Italy, has not run dry: Ms. Pelosi’s accomplishments are a source of D’Alesandro pride.
Out of office, Mr. D’Alesandro became an informal adviser to one of his successors, Martin O’Malley.
In later years, he enjoyed going to Ocean City and spending time with his family. He celebrated his 90th birthday July 24 at Chiapparelli’s in Little Italy with his wife and children.
Nick D’Alesandro said the family still is making arrangements for his father’s funeral.
Baltimore Sun reporters Phil Davis, Jacques Kelly and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.