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Manuel R. ‘The Chief’ Alvarez, a longtime maritime engineer and accomplished cook, dies

Manuel R. "The Chief" Alvarez negotiated harbor tugboat contracts with management.
Manuel R. "The Chief" Alvarez negotiated harbor tugboat contracts with management. (Jim Burger)

Manuel R. “The Chief” Alvarez, who worked for three decades as a chief engineer aboard harbor tugs and ships and was also an accomplished cook, died of lymphoma Aug. 8 at his Linthicum home. He was 87.

“I worked as a mate for Curtis Bay Towing and Baker-Whiteley and was with The Chief aboard the tugs America and Britannia,” said Captain Robert G. Lukowski, who recently retired after 38 years as a harbor pilot with Jacobsen Pilot Service in Long Beach, California.

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“The Chief could fix anything and could immediately diagnose the problem and fix it and would help other engineers on tugs with their problems. He was always willing to help the other guy out and would do anything for you,” he said. “I always thought of him as a Will Rogers sort of guy who never met anyone he didn’t like.”

He added: “When my relatives from Massachusetts arrived in Baltimore, The Chief took them down to the tug’s engine room, turned on the engines and showed them around. He didn’t know these people but that’s the kind of guy he was. He was a very welcoming person.”

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Manuel Rafael Alvarez, son of Rafael Alvarez, an immigrant from Galicia, Spain, who was an outside machinist at Bethlehem Steel, and his wife, Frances Prato Alvarez, a homemaker from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, who was legally blind, was born in Baltimore and raised in the 600 block of South Macon St., once known as “The Hill,” an area that is now called Greektown.

“Two characters stand out in my notes: the man who sparked the mysteries of the sea in my Pop’s adolescent imagination and one who put the fix in to get him aboard his first ship,” wrote a son, Rafael Alvarez, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, in a 2019 article in Chesapeake Magazine.

One man was Henrich “Harry” Jung, a one-legged German grocer and former mariner, where Mr. Alvarez worked in the late 1940s as a stock boy, and the other was Manuel Sanchez, his father’s good friend, who was a shipping master on Bethlehem Steel’s ore boats, and landed Mr. Alvarez’s first job as a 17-year-old aboard the ore carriers in the summer of 1951.

He completed two round trip voyages — Baltimore to Chile — aboard the S.S. Chilore working first as an ordinary seaman and then as an engine room wiper. Working at sea would eventually become his calling.

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By the end of the summer, Mr. Alvarez had caught the allure of the sea and wanted to quit Patterson Park High School and go to sea full time, but his father would have none of it.

“My grandfather, for whom I am named, as my son is named for my father, forbid it, arguing that, unlike the Spain of his youth, a good education was free in the United States and a diploma was the ticket to peace in the house and success in the world,” Mr. Alvarez wrote in the magazine article.

After graduating from high school in 1952, Mr. Alvarez joined the Coast Guard, and relying from his experience and knowledge gained in the engine room of the Chilore, he was sent to the Coast Guard Engineering School in Groton, Connecticut, where he earned a third engineer’s license. In 1958, he obtained his chief engineer’s license as a chief maritime engineer for deep sea vessels of unlimited tonnage.

Discharged in 1956, he then sailed on Bethlehem Steel ore and tankers out of Sparrows Point, and in 1957, joined the crews of the Baker-Whiteley Towing Co. and later worked for successor McAllister Marine Towing Co. of Baltimore, where he worked for the next 30 years until retiring in 1988.

“He always had a smile on his face and was never in a bad mood even at 3 a.m. when he had to get the boys out of the Cat’s Eye Pub on Thames Street after they had had downed a couple of beers and go to work,” Lukowski said, with a laugh.

Mr. Alvarez became a lifetime member of the Seafarers International Union and served on committees negotiating harbor tugboat contracts with management and weathered a six-month strike in 1966 for better wages and working conditions.

When McAllister fired union crews in the 1980s, and was found guilty of creating a “shell” company to be rid of a union contract, Mr. Alvarez was part of the team that took the case to the National Labor Relations Board in a suit the union ultimately won.

During the hiatus of the McAllister firing and the NLRB decision, Mr. Alvarez returned to the sea in 1957 where he served in engine rooms of ships bound for the Middle East, primarily to Kuwait with one trip to the Far East.

“This was done so he could receive a full SIU pension before retiring from the maritime industry,” his son said.

In 1988, Mr. Alvarez “swallowed the anchor,” as mariners term retirement, and came ashore. That same year, he purchased a Linthicum-area tool supply and repair store and served as a an “all-around salesman, counter man and problems solver,” his son said.

By 1992, Mr. Alvarez was fully retired.

He was known as an expert cook and enjoyed crabbing on the Wye River with his close friend and fellow tugboat man, Jerome Lukowski, Robert Lukowski’s uncle, and it wasn’t uncommon for the two men to come home with six or seven bushels of crabs.

Mr. Alvarez was revered for his soups, especially bean, barley, split pea and crab. He often stuffed rockfish with crabmeat from blue crabs he had caught, which he baked in the oven with lemon slices and breadcrumbs.

“He loved to cook and a lot of his cooking reflected a Spanish influence,” Capt. Lukowski said. “I can tell you he made a lot of good meals aboard the tugs.”

Another culinary delicacy that was found in Mr. Alvarez’s kitchen was his crabs and spaghetti — better known as Manny’s Baltimore Crabs and Spaghetti —that featured a piquant tomato sauce and naturally, crabs.

After he cleaned a dozen crabs — he made sure to keep intact the claws, legs and fins — he broke them in half and dropped the halves into the waiting sauce. Before eating, he would dust this collation with Parmesan cheese and a little crushed pepper to give it a little oomph and heat, and then washed it down with a glass of chilled red wine.

“Crabs and spaghetti was a Friday treat when Catholics don’t eat meat,” Mr. Alvarez explained in a 2013 Sun article about his dish.

A raconteur of sorts, Mr. Alvarez, a longtime Linthicum resident, enjoyed sitting around his kitchen table or under a tree in his backyard regaling neighbors with sea stories and tales of the old days in Baltimore.

“My dad spent his life at sea and raised his boys as if we were his deckhands. Strict but fair. And funny,” wrote another son, Victor Paul Alvarez, of Bristol, Rhode Island, a former newspaperman, in an email.

“He used nautical terms when he talked and I didn’t realize that was unique to our house. I didn’t know other kids were never told to ‘sweep the deck’ or ‘make the bunk’ or ‘go down below,’” he wrote. “When something in the house broke beyond repair it was ‘finished with engines’ or ‘rolled an ace deuce.’”

He recalled his father taking him to neighborhood taverns on Sunday afternoons. While his father enjoyed a few beers with his tugboat pals, he used the money his dad had given him to play video games and buy codfish cakes.

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“I saw a man buried at sea once. It must have been one of my dad’s friends or colleagues. A seaman of some kind,” he wrote. “We went out on a tug and after they dumped the ashes in the water they threw in a six-pack of Budweiser cans for the departed. I was 11. It blew my mind.”

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Plans for services are incomplete but Mr. Alvarez’s ashes will be spread in the harbor where he had spent his life’s work, according to Rafael Alvarez, who lives in Greektown.

In addition to his two sons, Mr. Alvarez is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Gloria Jones, a retired BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport executive secretary; another son, Daniel Alvarez of Linthicum; a brother, Victor Alvarez of Cambridge; a sister, Dolores Kelly of Chicago; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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