Nicholas Guerieri

[ Age 87 ] Electrician who climbed Bay Bridge, working 400 feet in the air, spent 55 years in his field

October 10, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Nicholas Charles Guerieri, who during a 55-year career as an electrician scaled the heights of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and strung wire and cable deep in the earth, died of the asbestosis-related lung disease mesothelioma Oct. 3 at his Perry Hall home. He was 87.

Born in Baltimore and raised on South Curley Street, he was a 1937 graduate of Polytechnic Institute. In an unpublished family memoir, My Life As Far Back As I Can Remember, he recalled paying a nickel for the streetcar tokens to ride to school.

"Five cents was a lot of money, which we had very little of. We always carried our own lunch and drank water when needed. On several occasions when I wanted a 5-cent candy bar, I'd walk home from school and use the token the next day for the candy," Mr. Guerieri wrote.

Jobs were scarce because of the Depression and college was a financial impossibility, but a relative was able to get Mr. Guerieri an electrical apprenticeship at Bethlehem Steel.

"It was an 8,000 hour apprenticeship that took me four years and one week to complete," he wrote, and then he won a regular job there at 92 cents an hour.

In 1944, Mr. Guerieri was drafted into the Army, but after a medical problem was discovered during training, he was given a discharge. "He often talked with emotion about how all of his comrades lost their lives and how fate had kept him safe," said a daughter, Sharon-ann Guerieri of Perry Hall.

Returning to Baltimore and his union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24, Mr. Guerieri began working a variety of jobs, including the construction of a concrete water tunnel under Liberty Road in the late 1940s that he described as 8 feet wide and 300 feet down. "As an electrician, my job was to maintain the lights and keep the pumps running. It was always cold and wet down there," he wrote.

In the early winter of 1952, Mr. Guerieri went to work on construction of the Bay Bridge, joining five other electricians and a foreman atop a mid-span tower that soared 400 feet above the water.

"Believe me, the first time up was very scary just like the previous 300-foot down tunnel job," he wrote. "Our job was to run wire along the catwalk of the suspension cable and for the temporary lights, which they needed to see at night when the cables were stretched and placed in the elephant ears [buttress]."

Mr. Guerieri was on Pier 26 when Hans Marx, a Sun photographer who had been recording the bridge construction, spotted him and a co-worker.

"He noticed a three-masted schooner about to go under the bridge the same time I am securing my wire to the steel cable," he wrote of the event. "I'm standing at the end of a 12 x 12 timber and the young apprentice bridge man is straightening out the first layer of cables. He shouted to us, `Hold it, Boys, I have a picture for the Sunday brown section.'"

What became an iconic image of the Bay Bridge's construction was published on April 6, 1952, in the sepia-toned rotogravure section of The Sunday Sun, which older readers still refer to as "the brown section."

Nearly 50 years later, the photo was chosen as the cover illustration for A Century in The Sun: Photographs of Maryland, published by The Sun in 1999.

"He was looking at a newspaper ad promoting the book and said, `That's me.' He was so proud of being in that picture. He had never told us. It was a door that opened, and we heard many more stories about his work," his daughter said.

Mr. Guerieri's family purchased a copy of the book and a copy of the photograph, which they framed and hung on the wall of their home.

"When we went into Barnes & Noble in Towson, a lady who had worked on the book was there, and when she found out he was one of the people in the picture, they made such a fuss over him," said his wife of 59 years, the former Patricia O'Brien.

Mr. Guerieri retired in 1986, but less than a month later, he returned to work.

"He used to say, `If you don't work, you'll rust out,'" his daughter said.

For the next 20 years, until May, when he quit because of failing health, he was manager of Athens Cleaners on Harford Road in Carney, where customers called him "Mr. Nick."

"He was a very nice man, and anyone you asked would tell you the same thing," said Popie Diakantois, a co-worker.

Mr. Guerieri was a member of the Cardinal Gibbons Council of Knights of Columbus, and a communicant of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Fullerton, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Saturday.

Also surviving are another daughter, Sheila Ann Hoover of Perry Hall; a brother, Alfred R. Guerieri of Chester; and two grandchildren.

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