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Former Governor And Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer Dies At 89
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April 19, 2011
It’s a cliché, but he really was larger than life.
William Donald Schaefer rose from anonymous title search lawyer to serve four terms as mayor of Baltimore, two as governor of Maryland and two as the state’s comptroller. He was a dominant political figure in the life of Baltimore and Maryland for more than a generation. He became a political powerhouse – an iconic folk hero.
His sometimes zany, “Do It Now!” leadership style was remarked in Maryland for years—and then marveled at by the national media. In the 1980s, he and Baltimore and the urban developer James Rouse made the cover of Time magazine. Esquire called him the best mayor in America. His inaugural leap into the new aquarium seal pool was called "the splash heard 'round the world."
He went a step or two beyond the classic American mayor. He was a studied mixture of the madcap and the single mindedly earnest. He was determined to raise the spirits of his downcast city and to put it on the map. He could be maddeningly obstinate and profane, He could be demanding beyond reason as he sought action and allies.
Governor Martin O’Malley who served as mayor after Schaefer said his predecessor’s legacy is love of place. And hard work: He made 24-7 look like slacking. And he was a genius at discovering talent – particularly among women – and putting it to work.
“William Donald Schaefer was very much a guy who believed in loving his city with great exuberance and making sure that everyone understood that there was nothing more important to him than the city that he served.”
U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski said Schaefer pulled Baltimore off the ropes, rebuilt its self-image and made tourism the city’s new industry. He enlisted everyone in his effort.
“We not only built a new harbor but a new economy. Also, his relentless ‘Do-It-Now’ approach to getting government in gear – but the ‘Do-It-Now!’ spread as a culture. We all wanted to do it and we wanted to do it now.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, born a year before Schaefer became mayor, saw him as a model leader.
“Schaefer was his own person. He brought attention to the city. He used all of his personality not just the tough side but he used the soft side and the funny side to benefit the city.”
Former mayor Kurt Schmoke says Schaefer’s importance went beyond Maryland.
“From a broader perspective in the 1970s and 80s he was an advocate for urban America. He was one of the elected officials that stood up and said there was great value to cities and tried to make that point in every forum he could.”
State Senate President Mike Miller spoke of the biography that distinguished him.
“He lived in a row house in Baltimore with his mom. He never forgot his roots. Never forgot his early friends. And did a magnificent job as mayor, … He thought about Baltimore City 24 hours-a-day.”
His political life began in the 1950s, when he lost two races for the Maryland House of Delegates. After the second defeat, he won a seat on the Baltimore City Council. For that race, he was “taken” – political jargon for endorsed – by a powerful Northwest Baltimore Democratic club.
One of Schaefer’s heroes was Britain’s wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Schaefer watched him walking with the people of London during The Blitz of World War II. Schaefer served in an Army hospital unit there.
O’Malley said Schaefer became the same kind of leader. He was not a great writer or speaker as Churchill was, but his every public act resonated with his city.
“We’ve always been a city that instead of running away from adversity rises to that adversity and of that conflict creates a greater and better future. I think that’s who we are as a people and I think William Donald Schaefer understood that….”
Remarkably shy off the public stage, Schaefer became the “Barrymore of Baltimore,” an impresario of city redevelopment. He and his staff brought coaxed one dramatic building project after another onto the skyline. He was always the leading man, insisting on as much drama as possible – with equal portions of progress.
A 7-foot-tall statue of him was unveiled on his 87th birthday in 2009 at the Inner Harbor – one of the best known of his many public works projects. As mayor and governor he presided over the construction of two professional sports stadiums, an aquarium, a science center, a light rail system and many other improvements.
Robert Embry, housing commissioner under Schaefer former federal official in HUD and now head of the Abell Foundation
“It’s a tribute to a great man, a great citizen of the city. It’s a small token of remembrance. It’s too bad more people known know what he accomplished.”
Many of those who worked for Schaefer over the years came to the statue-unveiling. One of his closest aides, Daryl Plevy, thought she knew why so many people found him charismatic-- funny hats, dips in the seal pool and eccentric antics and all.
“More than anything it was his total commitment to do the best he possibly could. And it was all consuming… He was a special man … Working for him was inspiring him and exciting. You felt like you were making a difference, doing the right thing.”
Laslo Boyd, an academic who observed Schaefer for years and managed his last campaign, called him the essence of the public servant – and a man of great political instincts.
“He had vision, he had determination. He was willing to lead. He really cared about people. He didn’t have an agenda for himself. When others were taking polls, testing the waters, he plunged ahead. He epitomized leadership, gave it definition.”
Schaefer was so willing to don crazy hats and costumes that some thought him a clown. He was forgiven more often because it seemed such a part of his Baltimore boosting.
Senate President Miller says the acting part didn’t go over as well in Annapolis
“People like that. People like Schtick but for example he and I were the dais of the House of Delegates one day, he was about to give h is state of the state speech and that morning The Washington Post had a picture of him wearing goggles, goofy with eyes maximized ten times and he said ‘Whatda ya think?’ I said governor it’s embarrassing. If somebody from Saudi Arabia was looking at you this morning he’d be wondering what the hell kind of governor we have.”
His friend and ally, former House of Delegates speaker Casper Taylor, says Marylanders knew what kind of governor he was and that’s what mattered.
“He always played himself as a loser because he wanted people to help him more. Not less, more.”
In 1986, he sailed off to Annapolis decked out in yet another costume, an admiral’s uniform. He would guide the ship of state. For various reasons, he initially refused to live in the Governor’s Mansion.
He never quite made the transition. He never stopped thinking of himself as the mayor of Baltimore.
I’m Fraser Smith reporting in Baltimore, for 88-1, WYPR.
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