Joe Canavan, who opened World Class Chili at Pike Place Market in 1986, died Nov. 11 while vacationing in Maui.

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Joe Canavan’s chili, by name, was world-class. Customers of his Pike Place Market takeout stand made it world-famous.

“People who come into our store tell us, ‘We come to the Market every year; we come for the chili,’ ” said Linda Hitchcock, whose Undercover Quilts is three doors down from World Class Chili.

Mr. Canavan died Nov. 11 while vacationing in Maui with his wife of 48 years, Dorothy. While snorkeling for the first time, he took in water after possibly suffering a heart attack or stroke and died the next day. He was 78.

Mr. Canavan had bounced back from a heart attack in 1980 to run a marathon and climb Mount Rainier. More recently, he had returned to the Market after a hip replacement.

“He always had a twinkle in his eye and good humor, but when it came to preserving the heritage of the Market, he was very serious,” said Michael Yaeger, owner of Watercolors Fresh Daily, which looks down upon the atrium where World Class Chili is located in the south end of the Market.

Mr. Canavan was born in Butte, Mont., the son of a mine manager, and was raised during the Great Depression. He started making chili when he was 14.

After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he came to Seattle and earned a business degree at Seattle University. In the 1970s, he opened a disco in Northgate called The Space Place.

He launched World Class Chili in 1986, characterizing his recipes with a notation on the menu: “It ain’t the kind your mother used to make!” Mr. Canavan offered four styles of chili, served over a choice of pinto beans, black beans, brown rice, seashell pasta or a combination.

USA Today placed World Class Chili among “10 great places to tuck into a warm bowl of chili” in October 2005.

“He had quite the following from people who like chili,” Dorothy Canavan said. “He loved to meet his customers” whether they were attorneys, accountants, techies, cruise-ship tourists or a group of New York City cops who visit Seattle each year on motorcycles.

“He always had a tale for me every evening at the dinner table,” she said. “I’d say, ‘OK. What happened today?’ “

While receiving treatments for an infected hip, Mr. Canavan underwent daily intravenous therapy, passing the time by studying calculus.

“He had a wonderful mind,” his wife said. “I think that’s why people took to him.”

Mr. Canavan is survived by Dorothy, of Madison Park; sister Mary Hardy, of Bethesda, Md.; and sister-in-law Annette Canavan, of Columbia Falls, Mont.

Friends at the Market are celebrating his life at 2 p.m. today in front of World Class Chili. Family services are pending.

Remembrances may be made to St. James ESL Program, 804 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104; Literacy Source, 720 N. 35th St., Seattle, WA 98103; and Catholic Community Services, 100 23rd Ave S., Seattle, WA 98144.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com