Harry G. Ochs Jr., the feisty Italian teenager who apprenticed at the Reading Terminal Market when it was still a lively railroad hub and stayed on to become its iconic butcher and for more than half a century the market's convivial public face, died yesterday.
Mr. Ochs, 80, was more than just another prime butcher at the market. He was a living link to its storied past, for decades holding down a stall at center court, hailing customers like a carnival barker.
His meat stand was there through fat and lean, serving generations of Philadelphians who marched down loyally for Christmas roasts and spring lamb at Easter. Customers who had moved to California were startled years later when Mr. Ochs remembered their orders by heart.
Among his most loyal customers was District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
"What a remarkably sweet man he was," Abraham said last night. "He knew everybody and everything. He was just a sensational guy. He was the heart and soul of the market."
He was a product of South Philadelphia, born Harry G. Finocchio. But after apprenticing with the first Harry Ochs, a German butcher in the market, he later took over the stand and adopted the name. (A son, Harry III, who was being groomed as a meat cutter, died in 2004.) Harry was sometimes called "The Mayor of the Market," for his flesh-pressing, big grin, and irrepressible sense of humor.
Those same political skills came in handy 20 years ago when, as the head of the merchants association, he led the fight to save the market when it was threatened by construction of the Convention Center.
"He was determined not to let the market slide into oblivion," Abraham recalled.
His leadership during that period cemented his position as a respected elder among the market's merchants for the remainder of his days.
"He really was a role model for many generations of merchants at the market," said Paul Steinke, general manager of the market.
Vincent Iovine, of Iovine Bros. Produce, called him "a father figure to everyone at the market."
"He was always watching out for your business," Iovine said. "We went to visit him in the hospital and he was sitting there telling us we had better get back to work, to get back to the store. He never changed."
Mr. Ochs' place in the city was memorialized five years ago when the 1100 block of Filbert Street was renamed "Harry Ochs Way."
Even then, he was fighting the cancer that would eventually take his life.
As illness took its toll, he cut back his workdays. But he was still a presence until the end, his body a bit bowed, crew-neck sweaters keeping him warm, his once-wiry frame going gaunt. His voice took on a raspiness. But he never lost the twinkle in his eye for a pretty girl, his love of storytelling - and faith in the restorative power of a well-cut, larded filet of beef.