William Donald Schaefer, the mercurial, demanding leader who reshaped Baltimore in four terms as mayor before serving two terms each as governor and comptroller of Maryland, died Monday at the age of 89.
Schaefer had been in failing health for the past several years. Last week, he was hospitalized with pneumonia at St. Agnes Hospital, near where he had lived in recent years, the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville.
During his almost 16 years as mayor, Schaefer presided over the remaking of a city consigned to urban decay. He is credited with steering much of the city’s downtown revitalization, including Harborplace, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, and, as governor, the sports complex at Camden Yards with stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens.
Tributes and sympathy poured in from all quarters for the man who rose from anonymous title lawyer to the highest offices in City Hall and the State House in more than 50 years of public service.
“The man was, for the last century, probably the most significant public servant that Maryland has had,” said Donald P. Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo, who served as Baltimore County Executive while Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore. “He governed in ways that most people haven’t governed. Schaefer governed through the fear of what he might say about you publicly.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that Schaefer “set the standard for what it means to be the mayor of an American city.”
“Every Baltimore mayor since William Donald Schaefer — and for generations to come,” she said, “walks into office knowing that they have to live up to an impossible standard: do it now!”
Said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller: “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. He was a fine governor, but most importantly his job as mayor should be remembered because he was one of the greatest mayors of all time.”
“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,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley.
O’Malley, who served as mayor after Schaefer, said his predecessor’s legacy is unconditional love of place — Baltimore — and his genius for finding and using talent — particularly among women.
Sandy Hillman, a former member of Schaefer’s staff who helped market city neighborhood revitalization and the rebirth of the Inner Harbor in the 1980s, said Schaefer was a genius in public policy and service.
“He was one of the most important people in public life in America in the last five decades,” she said. “I loved every day of the 13 years I worked for him.”
As mayor from 1971 through 1986, Schaefer was known for his “do it now” style of management. He was famous for driving through the city’s streets, inspecting public trash cans, streets, sidewalks and curbs, then ordering bureaucrats out of their offices to make repairs and clean up debris.
Schaefer’s mark on the profile of Baltimore was recognized with a statue at the Inner Harbor — his signature achievement — unveiled on his 88th birthday, Nov, 2, 2009. A larger-than-life likeness, admirers called a fitting tribute. Critics — he always had them as well as fiercely loyal admirers — called it overdone, a final example of his public relations driven career.
A Democrat all of his political life, Schaefer served as the state’s 58th governor for two terms from 1987 until 1995. After that, he served as state comptroller from 1999 until 2007.
An unlikely start in politics
A lifelong bachelor, Schaefer was an only child, born in Baltimore on Nov. 2, 1921, to Tululu and William Henry Schaefer. He was raised at 620 Edgewood St. and graduated from Baltimore City College in 1939. He received a bachelor of law degree in 1942 and a master of law degree in 1954, both from the University of Baltimore.
In 1942, Schaefer enlisted in the U.S. Army, became an officer and worked as a hospital administrator in England and Europe during World War II. He remained in the Army Reserve after the war, retiring in 1979 with the rank of colonel.
After the war he returned to work with his father, a title search lawyer, near the courthouse in downtown Baltimore.
Schaefer’s political life began in 1950 when he lost the first of two races for the Maryland House of Delegates. After the second defeat in 1955, he ran successfully for the Baltimore City Council, his candidacy backed by a powerful Northwest Baltimore Democratic club.
After three terms, he was elected City Council president and in 1971, mayor. Many city leaders wrote him off as untutored and temperamental. But his eccentric leadership style quickly won a legion of followers.
With his own surprising flair for public theater and his team of zealous managers, Schaefer became a folk figure. He ruled by tantrum and by offering big responsibility — especially to women who were held out of leadership positions in most areas of American society through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
In the last years of his elected public service, Schaefer’s supporters watched in dismay as he became embroiled in antic episodes that made him seem boorish and disparaging of women. They worried that these episodes would undermine his legacy.
He was a builder — a bricks and mortar man — who wanted to harness the power of public works to promote the city which, until his election, had been content with a widely perceived inferiority complex.
As one Schaefer project followed another, his leadership produced a deeper dimension of commitment to his vision — and to his enduring political rank among political leaders in Maryland.
Corporate leaders in Baltimore, eager to help a pro-business mayor, began lining up to serve — some of them accepting roles that converted them to an unofficial mayor’s cabinet. He once berated the telephone company’s chief executive for allowing cigarette butts to accumulate in the tree wells.
Taking center stage
Remarkably shy off the public stage, Schaefer became the Barrymore of Baltimore, an impresario of city redevelopment. He and his staff brought one dramatic building project after another to fruition. He was always the leading man, demanding as much drama as possible — with equal portions of progress.
Posing in a variety of costumes over the years, he began to love his star status. His most famous moment came on Sept. 9, 1981, when the National Aquarium opened, later than was planned. In an orange and yellow striped Victorian swimsuit and straw boater — and cradling a child’s rubber ducky — the mayor of Baltimore created what became known as the splash heard round the world by taking a dip in the aquarium’s seal pool, fulfilling a pledge that he would swim in one of the tanks if the facility failed to open by a promised date.
National and local media of every sort showed up for the carefully planned event.
Schaefer’s showmanship brought many to the city’s new water-side shopping and eating venues. In a few short years, he converted rotting piers and warehouses into a vibrant new main street called Harborplace that, in its early years, was said to draw as many visitors to Baltimore as Disney World drew to Florida.
Schaefer always acknowledged the many leaders, elected officials or their expert advisers, who had worked to revive the city. The urban planning genius, James Rouse, was one of the first to urge a rediscovery of the city’s birthright, a potentially glorious, water-side city center. It could be, he thought, redefined and reborn.
‘People and caring’
He constantly charged his aides to ask themselves what they had done that day for even one person.
Not always precise in his language, he said two words should guide everything: People and caring.
So what if it was three words. You got the point.
“That was the whole thing,” longtime aide Lainy Lebow-Sachs said at Schaefer’s 85th birthday party. “There was the Inner Harbor and all, but the main thing was helping people.”
Ever faithful to her boss’s demands for something new and unusual, she had prepared 85 different cakes for a festive affair at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
There was of course, a limit, to his caring.
Soon after he was elected, Schaefer told a local television audience that he was determined to be the people’s mayor. Rose Lundsford, the City Hall telephone operator, heard the new mayor’s promise.
When an 85-year-old constituent called late one night to speak with Schaefer about garbage collection, Lundsford put her right through to Schaefer. A few minutes later, the phone rang again.
“Who’s on down there?” Schaefer asked.
“Just me, all by myself,” said Lundsford.
“Don’t believe everything I say,” Schaefer said. Then he told her to get someone at the public works yard to take care of the problem.
Lundsford stayed in the job for 25 years.
He wanted the involvement of people — knew he had to have it to pull Baltimore back from the brink of collapse. A team of true believers gravitated to him. They were young men and women whose energy and creativity he never failed to challenge and use.
“He empowered people like me,” said Sally Michel, who moved back to the city after meeting him and concluding that a new era was in prospect.
She sponsored a series of 76 working dinners at her house. Other young people showed up to give the new mayor their views. He agreed to sit quietly, take notes and say nothing.
“What political figure does that?” she asked years later. “I haven’t seen anyone like him since.”
His use of women as top lieutenants was dismissed jokingly by some: He recognized a cheap labor pool, one of them said. Others who lived through an era when talented women had slim prospects never discounted what he did for them.
“He was an impassioned advocate,” said State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who met Schaefer when he became governor and when she was a member of the House of Delegates. She recalled Schaefer urging a group of female legislators to “do what you think is right” in a program for children.
“We wouldn’t have taken the risk otherwise,” she said. “He was wonderful. We knew we were supported and trusted. We knew he was watching. You knew you were accountable.”
She discounted a moment at the end of his career when he appeared to disrespect a young woman aide to the Board of Public Works in Annapolis. After she had delivered a cup of tea, then-Comptroller Schaefer asked her to “walk again” so he could watch her from behind.
A new world, unfamiliar with Schaefer’s advocacy for women, was outraged. The episode helped create the opposition that led to his only electoral defeat, save for the two losses at the very beginning.
“We all say a lot of things we wish we hadn’t, did things we wish we hadn’t,” Kopp said.
Her recollections of more uplifting moments amounted to a distillation of the Schaefer leadership formula: Give people direction, give them authority, urge them to act — let them know you would use their work.
When the city held a referendum on whether to build a new waterfront commercial center, he turned the organizing over to Baltimore lawyer Richard L. Berndt.
“When he was really happy he would call me the ‘German General’ and when he was upset he would call me ‘Junior,’ so I knew where things were going depending on what nickname he used,” Berndt said, adding that Schaefer was a loyal friend who also demanded loyalty in return.
“He used the power of his personality and the waves of emotion that came through it to energize and drive the city,” he added. “He got up every morning and turned the engine of city government on. There are people in neighborhoods all over the city who have senior housing or a recreation area or a parking lot that they wanted and were having difficulty getting, and somehow they got to Mayor Schaefer and it happened.”
Schaefer and others worried that the mayor might be seen as being too close to developer James Rouse, so he gave the job to Berndt.
But stay in touch, he said to Rouse in terms not to be misunderstood. The referendum passed and Harborplace followed.
A helping hand
Much of the city’s success depended on financial help from Annapolis, and as mayor, Schaefer’s was fortunate to find a keen ally in the state capitol. He and Marvin Mandel, who became governor in 1968, had come from the same 5th District clubhouse in Baltimore.
Schaefer and Mandel, under the close control of the legendary political fundraiser and godfather Irvin Kovens, found ways to send bales of money to Baltimore.
“We had a great relationship,” Mandel said. “We never had a problem in all those years. We wanted to see the city prosper. He’d come down with a laundry list of things he wanted. I’d say yes to this and this and this and no to that. He’d accept that.”
With others, Schaefer was known for never being satisfied, never accepting limits — and for getting belligerent.
Former state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who ran against Schaefer for governor in 1986, called him petulant and parochial. Hardly anyone in the political community disagreed. But Sachs knew long before Election Day that he was running against the approximation of a colossus.
And after Schaefer was re-elected in 1990, he made one of his most famous off-the-cuff remarks. He was walking into the House of Delegates chamber on Feb. 1, 1991, for the swearing-in of state Treasurer Lucille Maurer when he spotted his friend, Del. Bennett Bozman of Berlin.
“How’s that s— house of an Eastern Shore?” he said.
Schaefer thought the Shore should have supported him more during the 1990 election. In the State House, no one thought much of the comment — at the moment. A day or so later, pickups crossed the Bay Bridge with outhouses in the back and signs saying “I’m from the s-house.”
Shortly thereafter, an uncharacteristically contrite Schaefer appeared before the House of Delegates to apologize.
“I made a terrible mistake. I said something entirely in jest, and it was taken out of context. And I’m sorry…,” he said. “It’s time for the governor to say he made a mistake, and I did.”
After his two terms as governor, Schaefer was settled by friends in a Baltimore law office. But he wasn’t comfortable outside the arena. So when longtime state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein died, Schaefer got back in the game.
He knew little about being comptroller. Someone gave him a copy of accounting for dummies.
But knew a great deal about the other main function of the comptroller: serving on the Board of Public Works, the three-member body that manages the state’s day-to-day business affairs.
In that role, too, though he seemed to feel out of place. He nursed a feud with then-Governor Parris N. Glendening on a range of issues. Glendening, he felt, had criticized him for political advantage when Glendening was Prince George’s County Executive. Glendening also delayed the hanging of Schaefer’s portrait in the governor’s Ceremonial Room on the second floor of the State House.
But the unkindest cut came when, after years without a football team, Baltimore became home to the Cleveland Browns. A great welcoming announcement was held — and Schaefer was not invited to sit on the stage — a glaring Glendening snub. Schaefer had done everything to keep the hallowed Colts in town, but the team’s owner then, Robert Irsay, got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Indianapolis and moved the team in the middle of the night on March 28, 1984.
As long as the Colts were still in town, Schaefer courted Irsay constantly. Soon enough, he knew it was futile.
“If it rained on Tuesday and he didn’t like rain on Tuesday, Irsay was going to leave,” Schaefer said. He worried the departure would be a setback for Baltimore, a big league city. No sports fan himself, Schafer knew the team was important to the city’s own self-image.
A Baltimore legacy
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who served with Schaefer on the council, said his devotion to his hometown and rigid leadership style helped reshape the city following race riots in 1968 after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King.
“He carried us out of the riots and into a new community of energy and high expectations, an inclusive community,” Clarke said. “He had a vision of what we could be. He spent a lot of time dreaming and thinking about it and listening to a lot of people about it, and once he had it fixed in his eye, that’s all he could see until it happened.
“He wanted us to see what he saw and we did and it brought us out of our doldrums and into an era of potential. A lot of that is sustained even today.”
Tony Hawkins, a former executive with the Rouse Co. who worked with Schaefer when Harborplace was under construction, said Schaefer moved the entire health department permit office into the empty Pratt Street Pavilion a week before opening to get the necessary permits issued on time.
“He had a good vision and he was not afraid of leadership,” Hawkins said, adding of Schaefer’s famous temper: “If you didn’t want to feel it, get the job done.”
Hawkins recalled May 14, 1986, when he was riding through the city with Schaefer on a trolley reviewing parking issues when the mayor received news that the city’s clipper ship, the Pride of Baltimore, had sunk on a trip abroad with four of the 12 crew members lost at sea.
“He could not be consoled — he cried a lot,” Hawkins said. “He cared that deeply about things.”
As governor, Schaefer shepherded the development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards as part of a downtown sports complex that today also holds M&T Bank Stadium. He also was a strong advocate for the Metro rail line and a light rail system in the city and Baltimore County.
His frequent companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, served as the state’s official hostess in the governor’s mansion in Annapolis, where a Maryland-themed water fountain in the formal gardens was constructed at her direction.
But his public service in Baltimore will be his legacy, many said Wednesday.
“His love always seemed to be for the city,” said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. “Every time you go to the Inner Harbor you will think of William Donald Schaefer.”
The former governor will lie in state in the State House in Annapolis and the Rotunda of Baltimore City Hall, with times and dates to be announced.
C. Fraser Smith, who writes a weekly column for The Daily Record, is the author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography,” published 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.