Robert Rawls, a chef and fish cutter who distinguished himself as the oldest working man at Lexington Market, died of natural causes Sunday at St. Agnes HealthCare. He was in his 90s and lived in Baltimore.
Born on a farm near Suffolk, Va., Mr. Rawls began his career as a chef with the merchant marine in 1920. After 28 years, he moved to Baltimore, where he married and was a chef for Faidley's restaurant on Lexington Street for several years.
In 1964, after the restaurant closed, he started working at the market cutting fish, a job he held until March, when he retired because of declining health.
Those who knew him said that Mr. Rawls started working at the market when the streets were cobblestone and the food stalls were open-air. Over the years, his co-workers came to admire his strength and his good habits of always being on time, dressing well and providing gentlemanly service to Faidley's customers.
"He considered it a proud profession," said his son Victor Rawls of Baltimore. "Every day he would put on a suit and tie, and make his walk from Saratoga and Monroe to Lexington Market. He loved his work. He couldn't stay away from the place even on his days off."
Mr. Rawls credited his longevity, in part, to a daily routine that saw him getting out of bed at 4 a.m., dressing, taking a morning stroll and then making the trek to the market by 6.
"He would come to work nattily dressed," said Bill Devine, third generation owner of Faidley's who was his last boss. "He would change his clothes when he arrived and go right to work."
Although he was a relatively small man -- about 5 feet 7 inches tall -- Mr. Rawls awed people with his strength.
"He could lift a 100-pound fish with one hand, throw it up on the cutting board and 3 minutes later, it was gone," said Victor Rawls.
After a good day's labor, Mr. Devine said, Mr. Rawls would bathe -- a splash of bleach, a shower and a rub of lemon juice on his hands and arms -- then he would climb back into his suit and tie and catch the bus home.
Although he fought cancer beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Rawls missed few days of work.
"I don't have to work," he told a Sun reporter in 1997. "But I don't like to sit around. You get lazy that way."
The last time he was late to work, he said then, was probably the day his wife, Dorothy, died, 20 years before.
"He lived a magnificent life," Mr. Devine said. "He made a contribution to society. He'll be missed."
Services for Mr. Rawls will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Greene Funeral Service, 5151 Baltimore National Pike.
In addition to his son, he is survived by five other sons, Matthew Rawls, Robert Rawls Jr., Ambrose Rawls, Tyrone Rawls and Timothy Rawls; five daughters, Suzette Rawls, Victoria Rawls, Karen Rawls, Pamela Rawls and Debbie Rawls, all of Baltimore; and a brother, Bill Rawls of Suffolk, Va.