John 'Papa' Maloney dies at 91; South Gate butcher, school benefactor

With rock-hard hands and a sunny grin, John "Papa" Maloney wrapped steaks, cut chops and let a thousand flowers bloom.

Just down the street from his butcher shop in gritty South Gate, Maloney planted truckload after truckload of red and white rose bushes at South Gate High School. He started in 1992 with more than 1,000 plants, later telling the Los Angeles Times he did it because "goodness needs to be rewarded." Over the years, he frequently dropped by the school, clad in his white butcher's smock and white hard hat, to tend the flowers.

Maloney also donated meat for team meals, sponsored sports trophies, sent cold cut platters and chocolate-covered strawberries to student dances, and paid for college scholarships.

Well into his 80s, he swept sidewalks and gutters in the neighborhood around his Maloney Meat Co., sometimes hiring a couple of students to help. In 1994, the school named a playing field for him. Odyssey High School, a continuation school nearby, named its library for him.

Maloney, whose landmark shop on Firestone Boulevard is a red-brick barn topped with a Swiss chalet roof and a pig weather vane, died Jan. 14 at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. He was 91 and had been in failing health for six weeks, said his daughter, Maryann Maloney Marino.

Until November, he had maintained his spot at the cash register, peering through his bifocals and joking with shoppers. In earlier years, he was known to cry out: "Who's No. 1?" His employees — and even his customers — would shout back: "We're No. 1!"

When he knew that customers were unemployed or ill, he quietly gave them deep discounts.

"People knew about his generosity by word of mouth — and it was never his mouth," said South Gate Mayor Gil Hurtado.

Born on Nov. 16, 1922, in Shenandoah, Pa., John Patrick Maloney joined the Navy after graduating from high school. Shipped to the Pacific during World War II, he served in combat on the aircraft carrier Intrepid.

After his Navy tour, Maloney became a butcher for the Swift Meat Packing Co., then took a succession of jobs with the United Mine Workers union in Indiana, Michigan and California. In 1965, he bought a drive-in dairy franchise in Huntington Park for $2,700.

Within a year, the dairy's parent company filed for bankruptcy, and Maloney's investment evaporated.

In 1969, he and his wife, Theresa, opened the Maloney Meat Co. on the site of their defunct drive-in. They moved the business to South Gate in 1983.

Generations of shoppers were drawn to "Papa" — so named because he would cheerily greet customers whose names he didn't know as "Mama" or "Papa," and they would return the favor.

"I don't think anyone ever called him Mr. Maloney," Hurtado said.

In the heavily Latino community, he advertised certified Angus beef and the fresh pork feet, snouts, neck bones, jowls and heads used in Christmas pozole. Outside the store, he erected a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe; on her feast day every December, he would host a procession for the venerated religious figure, complete with mariachis in his parking lot.

"Not being Hispanic himself, he knew a lot about the culture and catered to the culture," said Martin Torrea, a former South Gate football player who does color commentary for the high school's locally broadcast football games. "He embraced South Gate, and South Gate embraced him."

Maloney adorned the exterior of his building with pots and boxes overflowing with flowers. When passing students asked him to make their school beautiful, he was inspired.

He chose English and American hybrid roses out of respect for the Virgin of Guadalupe, he told an interviewer: "How did Our Lady of Guadalupe come to Mexico? Carrying roses."

Maloney's survivors include Theresa, his wife of 65 years; their daughter, Maryann; their son-in-law, Larry Marino; and several nieces and nephews.

Rosary and visitation will begin Friday at 7 p.m. at St. Helen's Catholic Church in South Gate, and funeral services will be in the church on Feb. 1 at 9 a.m.

An ardent supporter of St. Francis Medical Center, Maloney appeared at a fundraising fashion show months before his death, wearing his formal wear as he was wheeled down the runway. The effect was "electric," said Gerald Kozai, the hospital's chief executive.

On his shop's Facebook page, Maloney used a smiling photo of himself at a previous black-tie event as yet another opportunity to relate to his public.

'Now extended through Thursday!" his posting proclaimed. "The first ten customers who come in and say Papa looks cute in his tux will win one free stack of hamburgers!"

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