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Gilbert Lukowski, 75, led ILA local


Gilbert Lukowski had a special way of making himself understood to fellow longshoremen and company officials sitting across the negotiating table during labor disputes.

He would scream in their faces until they got the point.

"You'd ask Gilbert a question, and he would explain why you should have known the answer already," said Albert "Sin" Kowalewski, a childhood friend who served under him when Mr. Lukowski was president of Local No. 1355 of the International Longshoremen's Association from the 1950s through the 1960s. The local represented ship's carpenters.

"When he'd talk to the men at a union meeting he'd bang the metal table with his fist until you couldn't hear anything else," said Mr. Kowalewski. "You had to know the guy real well or you might have thought he was crazy."

Mr. Lukowski, a Thames Street scrapper who went from working waterfront labor gangs after World War II to heading the ILA pension fund in Maryland, died of lung cancer Monday at Stella Maris Hospice. He was 75.

"His bark was worse than his bite," said a nephew, Gregory Lukowski, a Baltimore tugboat captain. "He was one of them in-your-face guys, but every holiday, he was at your house, dropping off loaves of Polish raisin bread with the crumbs on top. When my father [Jerome] was dying, Gilbert came over every morning and they'd talk and cry together."

He said one pungent memory from his childhood summed up his uncle's no-nonsense approach to life.

On Saturdays, all of the Lukowskis would gather at the home of family matriarch Veronica -- Gilbert's mother -- in the 1700 block of Thames St. One weekend, they were grinding fresh horseradish.

"I was 8 years old and was bugging them to let me taste it. They didn't cut this stuff, it wasn't the kind of horseradish you get at the supermarket," said Gregory Lukowski. "My parents kept telling me I wouldn't like it, but Gilbert said, 'Come here, kid,' and let me take a whiff. I almost passed out. It was my first reality check."

On the waterfront, Mr. Lukowski worked for years to get as much money and benefits for the men he represented as possible.

In his later career with the pension fund, he spent hours explaining complicated benefits to men who sometimes could neither read nor write.

As a union president, he often urged the ship's carpenters -- whose active ranks are down to fewer than two dozen men in the age of container cargo -- to go on strike and stay out as long as necessary to win concessions.

"We had plenty of rough times because of that," said his wife, the former Katherine Mazzie. "The union was his life."

The son of a bootlegging longshoreman, Mr. Lukowski was the middle child of three brothers born in the Thames Street house that did business as the Seamen's Cafe. His older brother Frank died in 1971, and Jerome, the youngest, passed away in 1997.

A graduate of St. Patrick's parochial school on Broadway, Mr. Lukowski dropped out of high school to join the Navy during World War II.

After the war's end, he worked at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point for a short time before going to work as a stevedore.

He married Katherine in 1950, the year he became president of Local No. 1355, and the couple settled in the Belair-Edison neighborhood near Catholic High School. Mrs. Lukowski still resides there.

When he wasn't doing union business, Mr. Lukowski read local newspapers and history books. His knowledge of Fells Point, known simply as Broadway in his youth, was encyclopedic.

"When I was growing up, the foot of Broadway was the greatest place in the world," he said a few years back. "They say nobody remembers the old days, but I think about it every day."

Until his cancer was diagnosed more than a decade ago, he enjoyed stopping in Kissling's Tavern at Fleet and Chester streets for a sandwich and a beer. Before his mother's death in 1990, he visited her every morning.

He will be buried tomorrow after a 10 a.m. funeral Mass at the Shrine of the Little Flower at Brendan Avenue and Belair Road.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, John Thomas Lukowski of Baltimore; two daughters, Beverly Atkins of Ashbury, Va. and Janet Ewing of Abingdon; and two grandchildren.

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