Walter Gilliam, who rose from a being a sandwich maker and dishwasher to become a chef at the old Haussner's Restaurant in a career than spanned more than 50 years, died Monday of complications from a stroke at his East Baltimore home.

He was 91.

"Walter was a splendid rock through all the years. He was someone to lean on, and he was always there when you needed him," said Francie George, the daughter of William Henry Haussner, a German immigrant and master chef who opened the venerable restaurant in 1926 at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Street, and Frances Wilke Haussner.

"He operated on the principle that the customer was always right. It wasn't uncommon for us to serve 1,800 dinners in an evening, which got Walter saying, 'It's just like a house party,' " recalled Mrs. George.

Mr. Gilliam, the son of a steelworker and a homemaker, was born and raised in Prince Edward County, Va.

He moved to Baltimore in 1941 with his family when his father took a job at Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point.

"They settled on Shooter Street, that ran between Madison Street and Ashland Avenue, near the old Sinai Hospital," said his son, Ralph Gilliam of Baltimore.

"They later moved to Washington Street, where they lived for 20 years, and for the last 31 have been at Ashland Mews on Eden Street," he said.

Mr. Gilliam was 20 years old in 1941 when he started working at Haussner's making sandwiches. He later moved up to dishwasher, broilerman and finally chef, in a career that often involved working six-day weeks.

In a 1995 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Gilliam said he was making hamburgers one day for his fellow employees when Mr. Haussner stopped by and advised him to make the burgers the same way he would for customers.

"He said, 'When you're doing something, do it right. If you don't do it right, when you're ready to do it right, you won't know how to do it,' " said Mr. Gilliam in the interview.

"He said that Mr. Haussner taught him everything he knew," his son said.

And in turn, Mr. Gilliam became a mentor to new employees.

"I used to call him 'Mr. Walter,' and he'd say, 'God gave you two hands. Use them,' " said Mrs. George, who worked briefly in the kitchen before returning to college.

"I was at the vegetable table and then he moved me over to mashed potatoes. I guess I was there 15 minutes," recalled Mrs. George, with a laugh.

"Before you put them in the dish, you had to stir them in the pot to fluff them," she said. "I guess I wasn't doing it the way Walter wanted, and he walked over and suggested I take a dinner break. He was everyone's mentor and wanted it done right."

Mr. Gilliam's expertise as a top-notch broilerman came into play when his son recalled a State Department affair at Haussner's, when his father had to prepare multiple steak orders.

"He told me he had 32 different steak orders, and not one of them was sent back to the kitchen. They were done to perfection," his son said.

"Anything he touched was good," said Mrs. George.

One of Mr. Gilliam's dishes even landed in the Haussner's menu.

"It was called 'Walter's Fried Chicken,' " his son said. "They named it after him."

Starting in 1952 and continuing until 1995, when his doctor ordered him to stay home because of glaucoma, Mr. Gilliam worked 43 years without missing a day of work, and once went 12 years between vacations.

"When it snowed and the streetcars and buses weren't running, he'd put plastic bags on his shoes," said Mrs. George.

"I'd like to work as long as I can," Mr. Gilliam said in the 1995 article. "Some people might think I'm crazy, but I never had it in my mind to stop working. My father said, 'Work as long as you can.' "

Despite his medical problems, Mr. Gilliam eased into retirement.

"He kept going to Haussner's two days a week to cook, in order to get it out of his system," his son said.

At home, Mr. Gilliam enjoyed cooking for family and friends but wouldn't "tell his cooking secrets," his son said.

Mr. Gilliam described his father as "never raising his voice," and being generous to a fault, the kind of man who opened his home to those who had no place to stay.

"He took care of many kids, and he had eight of his own in a four-room house," he said. "We had relatives and cousins from New York and the South who would come and stay."

He also said his father was a "great storyteller and had them to tell."

Mr. Gilliam had been a fan of the old New York Giants and was a "closet Yankees fan," his son said.

Mr. Gilliam was a member and deacon of United House of Prayer for All People, 3401 Edgewood St., Ashburton, where funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday.

In addition to his son, Mr. Gilliam is survived by his wife of 69 years, the former Josephine Cephas, a retired Baltimore public school special-education teacher; four daughters, Betty Carlos, Dietrich Cabean, Delores Mclean and Beverly Street, all of Baltimore; two brothers, Edward Gilliam of Baltimore and Earl Gilliam of Passaic, N.J.; 29 grandchildren; 31 great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by three other sons: Walter Gilliam Jr. died in 1964, George H. Gilliam was killed in Vietnam in 1968, and Jerome Gilliam died in 2008.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com