Michael R. Cataneo, 86, president of family's line-handling company

September 01, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Michael R. Cataneo, who headed a family-owned line-handling company on the Baltimore waterfront and cut an imposing figure on the docks, died Monday of kidney failure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Lutherville resident was 86.

In 1979, Mr. Cataneo retired as president of Cataneo Line Service, a business established by his father, Pietro Antonio "Tony" Cataneo, an Italian immigrant, in 1926. The elder Mr. Cataneo started the business after his waterfront luncheonette on Clinton Street failed.

Standing in his empty lunchroom, he observed a ship trying to warp into Pier 8 on Clinton Street and noticed the vessel was having difficulty. In those days, it was common practice for crew members to climb down rope ladders to the piers in order to tie mooring lines to bollards.

Racing out of the lunch room, he answered the call of a ship's officer and caught the heaving lines. He was paid $3 and was promised $2 if he returned to help cast off the lines when the steamer sailed.

From that experience, Pietro Cataneo began a line-handling firm that was a fixture in the harbor for nearly 70 years. He was credited with establishing the profession of ship tying.

His son, Michael R. Cataneo, who was born and raised in Little Italy, was 14 when he quit school and joined his father's business. After his father died in 1952, he took over Cataneo Inc., which ceased operations in 1993.

"He had a limited education but a tremendous amount of common sense," said his son, Michael P. Cataneo of Guilford, who began working with his father when he was six and succeeded him as head of the company.

Affectionately called "Cap" or "Big Mike," the heavy-set Mr. Cataneo was a familiar waterfront figure in his wide-brimmed fedora or tweed cap, dark striped suit, starched white shirt and ever-present Don Diego cigar.

"In those years, we had 6,000 ships in port and for many of those years, Cataneo Line Service was the only company tying up ships," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former Republican congresswoman and federal maritime commissioner.

Mrs. Bentley said Mr. Cataneo's extensive knowledge of the port made him a "walking encyclopedia" and his "memory and recollections were phenomenal."

For years, Mr. Cataneo worked out of an office on Dillon Street then on Hudson Street, where he answered phones and dispatched line-catchers. Days were long, often beginning at 4 a.m., and seven-day work weeks were common.

In a 1994 interview in The Sun, Mr. Cataneo recalled the rough and tumble days of the Baltimore waterfront when a quick punch and brawn were a longshoreman's best companion.

"I developed a practice early on to hit first and argue later," he said. "There were few Italians, and I was called all kinds of names. The Poles and Irish really gave it to you in those days because they were picked on, too.

"But I was a big, strong kid. They called me Iron Man Mike. I liked to help out the underdog. The blacks got a lot of the dirty work, iron ore, manure. I defended them, and people didn't like it, but I related to them," he said.

Lassiter Miller, an African-American who lives in Walbrook, worked for Cataneo Line Service for 36 years tying up ships and retired in 1986.

"I was small, and the guys made fun of me. But Cap'n Mike told them, `He's strong and can handle the job,' " he said.

"It can be hazardous work, and we worked day and night, and the weather never stopped us. Cap'n Mike was good at it. When I first started, he'd run out there and catch lines," Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Cataneo won many honors for his support of waterfront labor, including the 1984 Man of the Year Award given by the Waterfront Workers Association of the Port of Baltimore. Also that year, he was presented a Congressional Certificate of Merit for Outstanding Citizenship by then-Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat.

He was a longtime member of the Steamship Trade Association.

In 1937, he married Anna R. Barone, who died this year.

Mr. Cataneo was a longtime communicant and usher at the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity, 20 E. Ridgely Road, Timonium, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday.

He also is survived by a daughter, Gloria Cataneo Tosi of Lutherville; a sister, Agnes Cataneo Hagan of Timonium; two grandchildren; a great-granddaughter; and two step-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 9/01/99

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