Richard M. Cernak, a construction company executive-turned-restaurateur who was co-owner of Obrycki's, the venerable East Baltimore bar and crab house, died Friday of progressive supranuclear palsy at the Glen Arm home of a daughter.
He was 81.
The son of a businessman and a homemaker, Mr. Cernak was born Richard M. Cierzniak in Baltimore and was raised on Streeper Street in Canton.
After graduating from Mount St. Joseph High School in 1947, he earned a bachelor's degree in three years from Loyola College.
After college, he was drafted into the Army, where he served during the early 1950s in the Quartermaster Corps and developed a lifelong taste for adventure and travel.
For business reasons, Mr. Cernak and his late brother, Melvin Cernak, legally changed their names in the 1950s.
Discharged from the Army, he returned to Baltimore and went into the general contracting business, first with a partner then solo, when he established the Richard Cernak Corp., which specialized in building schools, banks and churches.
"He was known for his ethics and fairness, two things not always present in this line of work," said a son, Rob Cernak, who lives in Idlewylde and operates the crab house with his brother and two sisters.
Mr. Cernak and his wife, Rose "Rosy" Marani, whom he married in 1951, purchased Ed Obrycki's Olde Crab House, then housed in two rowhouses at East Pratt and Regester streets, from its longtime owner, Edward Obrycki, in 1976.
"They used to go in there all the time, and they'd tell Mr. Obrycki, 'If you ever think about selling, let us know,'" Rob Cernak told The Baltimore Sun at the time of his mother's death last year.
In addition to securing the restaurant premises, the purchase came with the crab house's secret crab seasoning, which earned it legions of fans, including Hollywood stars, athletes and politicians, who flocked there in crab season to whack open steamed and seasoned crustaceans.
While Mrs. Cernak worked the "front of her house," her son said, her husband worked in the kitchen overseeing preparation of the restaurant's crab dishes.
"They were a very good team, and it allowed them to spend lots of time together," the son said.
In a 1977 New York Times article, food critic Craig Claiborne described Mr. Cernak as a "genial, intelligent general contractor and commercial builder."
"Doubtless there must be a better source for steamed crabs than Obrycki's Restaurant, but it would be difficult to find. Obrycki's is a cozy, casual, friendly place with an expertly staffed kitchen that turns out in addition to mouth-tingling (if not to say mouth-burning) steamed crabs, formidably good crab cakes and crab imperial baked in the shell," he wrote.
Mr. Claiborne added that Mr. Cernak insisted "that those formulas are a tightly guarded secret and he refuses to part with them for love, money or publicity's sake."
"Rose and Richard were highly respected, and they made many contributions to the city's restaurant business," said Edward G. Sherwin, president of Sherwin Food Safety Co., a longtime customer and friend.
James P. O'Conor, a founder of the realty firm of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, knew Mr. Cernak for years.
"I've known Richard since the days he was at Mount St. Joe, which means a long time, and we were frequent goers to Obrycki's. They ran a very warm and wonderful place," said Mr. O'Conor.
"He and Rose were a wonderful couple, and Richard didn't mind taking a backseat to his wife. He was a very outgoing man and was a great companion for her," he said.
Ted Solomon, a Baltimore businessman, has been dining on the restaurant's crab dishes for nearly 40 years.
"I've been a customer for as long as they had the restaurant. I was there on an average of once a week during the season," said Mr. Solomon.
"Richard had a great personality but really was a quiet and a humble man, and the two worked as a team. They were both tireless and hardworking," he said.
"One of their qualities was not accepting anything less than the best crabs. They made sure the place ran smoothly. They were revered by their customers and liked by their employees," he said.
Mr. Solomon said the couple "passed on their work ethic to their children, who now run the restaurant."
Mr. Cernak said his father "loved business and the challenges that the business presented. He enjoyed accomplishing something and was by nature an ambitious person."
Mr. Cernak was a fan of "Man of La Mancha," the Broadway musical, and his favorite song from the show was "The Impossible Dream."
"He lived his life as if he were chasing 'The Impossible Dream,'" his son said.
Even though Mr. Cernak retired in 1995, and his wife two years later, he never lost interest in the business and advised his children on their expansion into Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and long-term strategic business plans.
Mr. Cernak had been president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland and had served on the boards at Mount St. Joseph's and the Frank J. Battaglia Signal 13 Foundation.
The former Idlewylde resident had lived in Bowleys Quarters in Baltimore County before moving in 2003 to a HarborView condominium. He collected cookbooks and enjoyed reading, trading stocks and skiing.
He loved driving fast automobiles and had attended the Derek Daly Driving Academy in Las Vegas.
Mr. Cernak was also a "frustrated car designer," his son said, who often would "go through stacks of napkins while fleshing out his next great design."
He was a communicant of St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, 6428 York Road in Rodgers Forge, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Also surviving is another son, Rick Cernak of Chase; two daughters, Cindy Bacon of Glen Arm and Cheri Cernak of Canton; and four grandchildren.