Walter Gilliam's streak began in 1952, eight years before Cal Ripken was born. He hadn't missed a day of work at Haussner's Restaurant until last month, when his glaucoma became such a problem that his doctor ordered him to stay home.
Mr. Gilliam, 74, works one day a week now, after years of working five and six days a week in the Haussner's kitchen. He started there when he was 15, at the sandwich counter, and worked his way up to chef. During his 43-year stretch without a day off, Mr. Gilliam once went 12 years between vacations.
Tonight at Camden Yards, Mr. Ripken is scheduled to break Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. The Sun, in an informal survey, called Baltimore-area businesses in search of employees with Ripken-like streaks and found Mr. Gilliam.
"Cal Ripken's Superman," Mr. Gilliam said. "You see, that's what I call him, 'Superman.' As far as I'm concerned, when he stops playing ball, he should be a doctor. The reason I say that is because he knows what to do as far as telling people how to avoid sickness."
Mr. Gilliam knows a little about avoiding sickness. So do several other Haussner's employees. Louise Barlow went from 1963 to 1990 without missing a day of work there. Dorothy Brown started the restaurant on St. Patrick's Day, 1940, and can't remember the last time she took a day off.
"I think we've been very lucky," said Francie George, the daughter of William Henry Haussner, a German immigrant who opened the restaurant in the late 1920s. "It's like a team here. Everybody depends on each other."
Mrs. George now runs the restaurant at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Clinton Street. She carries a piece of paper on which is listed the respective tenures of Haussner's workers. James Lewis, a utilityman for Haussner's, has missed one day since 1960, to attend his father's funeral; he, like several others at the restaurant, refuses to take vacation. Anita Gibson started in 1958, and once went eight years without missing a day.
"We have harmony amongst all the employees," said Mrs. Gibson, "and it is like a family. It gets in your blood. You could never be happy if you worked any place else."
"I'd like to work here as long as I can," Mr. Gilliam said. "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.' "
Mr. Gilliam recalls that one day shortly after he began working at Haussner's, he was making hamburgers for his fellow employees, and Mr. Haussner stopped him and told him to prepare the burgers as if he were preparing them 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.' "
Dorothy Brown began working for Haussner's in 1940, first as a waitress and then as a counter girl, hostess and cashier. If you call Haussner's at night, there's a strong possibility she will answer the phone.
Mrs. Brown isn't sure exactly how many days of work she has missed. But she remembers days when she awoke with a flu, or after she had a tooth pulled, that she went to work anyway.
"You just feel like this is home," Mrs. Brown said. "I'm just proud to be here. . . . I'm going to work here as long as I have the ability, as long as I'm not a hinderance, and as long as they'll have me."
Mrs. Barlow, who went from 1963 to 1990 without a day off, said Mr. Ripken's streak has been a constant subject of conversation at her house. "We talk about how much he puts into his work," Mrs. Barlow said. "The years of dedication he puts in there . . . I think it's fantastic that you're dedicated enough to what you do that you don't think about quitting.
"I don't think I can compare what I do to that, but I assume he does it for the same reason -- he likes what he does," she said. "He's happy with what he does."
Milly Aristidou, a waitress at Haussner's for almost 40 years, listens to Orioles games on the radio with her husband; this way, she said, you can relax, rather than having to focus when you watch them on television. "I don't know how Cal does it," she said. "Not only does he play and keep himself in shape, but he stood for hours to sign autographs after the game. I know my job -- I'm sure his job is tougher. I think, 'Oh my, how is he doing it?'
"I pray for him every night. If a ball comes anywhere near him, I really get nervous. I think, 'Oh, I hope he doesn't get hurt until he gets past this record.' "