Late BWI Business District icon Lou Zagarino’s contributions to the community are known to a degree, but he often preferred to toil in the background while trying to reach group goals.

As the cascade of accolades for late area business owner Lou Zagarino, who died Sept. 7, continued to flow from his vast network of friends and colleagues, Gene Condon may have pinpointed his greatest impact.

He was a constant matchmaker,” said Condon, the general manager of Arundel Mills, and the quintessential broker.”

Here’s his take: “When (current Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary) Paul Wiedefeld was exiting the Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce board, Lou was looking for someone from the BWI Business District to continue that representation and balance,” Condon said. “That turned out to be me. He was always looking out for North County.”

Zagarino, who evolved into a walking history book during his half-century career, was best known as the owner of The Rose Restaurant, and the franchisee of the adjacent Comfort Inn & Suites BWI Airport and the Sleep Inn & Suites BWI Airport. He’s left a legacy that also serves as a template for heightening community engagement and service.

Lou Zagarino, center, received the Sam Heffner Award in 2019 from the BWI Business Partership. At left, Sam Minnitte, left, and at right, Gina Stewart, execurive director of the BWI Business Partnership. (BWI Business Partnership photo)

Back story

Zagarino’s philanthropic work included lengthy liaisons with the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center, the University of Maryland Medical System, Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County, the Chesapeake Arts Center, and more. He also raised more than $1 million for the Muscular Dystrophy Association via his annual golf tournaments.

But at his core, as Condon noted, the Tao of Zagarino came down to this sensitive, refined soul effortlessly sharing connections; for one so driven, he not only comprehended the spirit of giving to an unusual degree ― sans any hint of ego ― while ensuring that all involved in his various endeavors, as he liked to say, “played nice.”

The Buffalo, New York, native delighted in talking about his beloved Bills among any and all things Buffalo. Zagarino lost his father at age 14, but with the support of his family and the network of lifelong friends he was already building, he worked to earn his bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University before further matriculation at the University of Michigan and Cornell. He also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

His move to his second home of Maryland came on a whim when he worked with MSU friends in the Howard County restaurants Papillion, which was in Ellicott City; and Perbaco, which later became Clyde’s and is now occupied by The Collective: Offshore.

It was after those short-lived gigs that he joined Lex Hospitality Group, where he eventually gained partial ownership of the former International Hotel, which was beside Friendship Airport (today’s BWI Marshall).

In the early ‘80s, his inner risk taker took over: he and partner Peter Antolini bought the former Lancer’s Restaurant to found The Rose (which recently reopened as the 9Five Kitchen & Bar) in North Linthicum.

Growth within the District that he never imagined served as a springboard to the success of The Rose, the building of the 185-room Comfort Inn ― then one of the District’s few hotels ― and eventually the 145-room Sleep Inn. He sold out in 2007 and founded Whitehall Management Group, where he invested in and consulted within the hospitality industry and continued blazing his philanthropic trail.

But his route wasn’t without various ups and downs: for instance, about a year earlier that he suffered a life-threatening aneurysm, which led Condon to recall the moment he was wheeled into the emergency room at UM BWMC.

“He told the doctor that if he looked familiar, it was because he was the chairman of the hospital’s board,” Condon said, with a laugh. “He then saw the doc open a box that contained a new piece of ultrasound equipment; it was one that he and the board helped finance.”

He did what?

Cliff Wietstruk worked for Zagarino as general manager and part owner of his hotels from 1990-2007 and also discussed his legacy.

“Lou was not only a great businessperson, husband to his wife Cathy and father to his daughter Alana, but also a great humanitarian,” said Wietstruk. “When most people headed home after a day’s work, he often had something to do in the community.”

Then he pointed to the many, many times Zagarino followed his heart instead of his head. One such occurrence was after 9/11.

Lou Zagarino, center, received the Sam Heffner Award in 2019 from the BWI Business Partnership. At left, Sam Minnitte, left, and at right, Gina Stewart, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership. (BWI Business Partnership photo)

“The hotel industry was practically shut down, so the money wasn’t coming in,” said Wietstruk. “He knew that retaining the full staff of about 150 might wasn’t the best business decision, but felt it was the right thing to do. So, he retained the full staff and then encouraged everyone to give what they could to the Red Cross ― then matched what the staff donated, dollar for dollar.”

Another example began as a gesture of appreciation to jet-lagged military members. Then, it mushroomed.

“Lou’s partnership with the USO included free showers (and sometimes rooms) for traveling soldiers. It drew several soldiers a day,” said Wietstruk, “but when Operation Desert Storm started, that number skyrocketed to 250. He also often provided meals and handed out care packages when they deployed.

“He never hesitated to pay for any of it. That generosity also extended to employees who needed money. He knew he’d never get it back,” he said. “That’s despite the fact that he sometimes struggled, too.”

Zagarino’s own payday “came later on. He’d never give me $20, though,” Wietstruk said, laughing.

‘Zag’ posted

Linda Greene, former executive director of the BWI Business Partnership, also had a decadeslong connection with Zagarino. They met during his International Hotel days when she worked as director of public affairs at the airport.

Greene said that many people “who met Lou professionally grew close to him personally as well, and saw that he was fiercely loyal to the people he worked with. When I had a work or a personal issue, I’d talk with him because he would offer insightful, solid advice.”

She found that out firsthand in 2009 when she was coping with a cancer diagnosis. What did Zagarino do? “He stepped in and ran the Partnership for three months,” she said.

Noting that his inclusion in a group that met with Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher to attract the airline to BWI Marshall was among Zagarino’s “biggest thrills,” Greene added that “his being involved in so many big events illustrates his impact in the region. That’s what I hope people understand.”

Pam Beidle understands. Now a state senator, Zagarino held the first fundraiser for the longtime North County politician in 1998 at The Rose, which became “a tradition that continued for many years,” she said. “He even bartended there on my behalf after he sold it.”

Like Condon, Beidle was also privy to how he looked out for the neighborhood. “In one case, 70 percent of the county’s hotel tax money was being spent in Annapolis, though most of it was generated within the BWI Business District,” she said, adding that he and others lobbied until the spending was adjusted.

“Overall, his work on the hospital boards made a huge impact for residents of Anne Arundel County, not only via Capital Campaigns, but the UM BWMC merger,” she said. “When Lou was on any board he was there, and not just in name.”

Certainly, his passing leaves a breach in a nonprofit community that “will miss him immensely,” said Beidle. “For instance, when my daughter was president of the Chesapeake Arts Center, he went to the county and the state for funding. The exterior of the building was updated due to his efforts.”

All heart

One instance that stands out to Korky Onal, aside from the general enjoyment of some wine and a cigar with Zagarino and “talking about anything and everything,” was yet another under-the-radar contribution he made when he was chair of the UM BWMC board.

“He used to work at the hospital cafeteria for several hours on Christmas Eve,” said Onal, former CEO/chairman of Glen Burnie-based ZBest Limousines and UM BWMC board chair, “and serve dinners to the staff.

“Lou just gave of himself,” he said, “until his light went out.”

And his altruism influenced many of the area’s other heavy hitters. “To many people, he was a philanthropist, but he combined financial support with leadership that supported organizations in many other ways.”

Wietstruk summarized his legacy in a similar fashion. “Lou’s leadership, selflessness and compassion for helping others and making the world a better place is unmatched,” he said. “There will never be another Lou Zagarino.”