Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Honoring William Donald Schaefer

William Donald Schaefer is a lucky man.

He’s lived to see himself lionized and loved in spite of his lapses.

At exactly 88 years of age last Monday, he saw hundreds of people sitting or standing at the heart of his life’s work — Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The wide waterside esplanade and the shopping arcades were not the sum total of his legacy, but they are its most easily recognized symbol.

All around him and his well-wishers were other examples of his life’s work: the mirror-like front of the Hyatt Regency hotel — which Schaefer willed into being by winning over its owner; the World Trade Center; the Maryland Science Center; the National Aquarium; the Baltimore Convention Center; and the gleaming harbor itself.

His admirers had come to watch a statue be unveiled as if the surrounding buildings were not monument enough. Statuary is so often delayed, the honoree long departed.

The former mayor, governor and comptroller arrived in a wheelchair, his hair a bit disheveled. The crowd applauded quietly as if they might disturb him with too much noise.

But he was, on this day, not in need of soothing. He was alert and funny and eager to needle friends in the audience. He mugged and scowled and frowned. He had come with everything but one of those funny hats he wore to great political advantage.

Shy by nature but more than willing to summon his actor persona, he engaged his audience immediately. It was Schaefer redux. He was his own throwback.

Making his own luck

He was lucky, to be sure. But he had made his own luck. He had steadfast friends and allies because he had been loyal to them.

He had won the loyalty of these men and women — especially women — because he offered opportunity and the belief that hard work could matter. And he was the role model.

What he set out to do — rebuild Baltimore physically and spiritually — was not going to be easy.

So he made a career of being unhappy — of using his unhappiness as a spur to his willing acolytes.

“Mayor Annoyed,” proclaimed a frequent headline in the newspapers.

Lainey LeBow-Sachs, his happily long-suffering aide and surrogate daughter, recalled his reaction on the day Harborplace opened.

She walked into his office full of congratulations.

He glowered.

That is history, he said. What else are we doing?

The crowd laughed. Many of them had been there, witnessed the annoyance and then worked to make it disappear. Find the abandoned car, make the vacant building look lived in, find a new way to cut ribbons on the many new projects he demanded.

He was challenging people. Give me your ideas, he would say. They did, not always believing he would use them. When they saw he would, they had to think harder lest he or they be embarrassed.

Giving halftime speeches

Randy Evans, who had many jobs with him, said Schaefer’s approach created a unique work force. It was like hearing your football coach at halftime.

“You were willing to run through a brick wall for the guy,” he said.

Much of this is, by now, part of a practiced folklore. It’s Schaeferiana. Baltimoreans can quote of it. Some thought his behavior buffoonish — but he was their buffoon and few of them thought he wasn’t determined to make their lives better.

Mayor Martin O’Malley was one of those who spoke during the statue unveiling. He spoke about Schaefer’s quirky talent, his motivational skills, his ability to draw support from corporate offices, from neighborhood centers and from a generation of shiny bright civic doers.

Many of them were in the audience Monday. O’Malley knew them, had inherited them and their passion when he was mayor.

“They represent the best of Baltimore and that’s what he was so good at, making us see the best in one another,” he said.

So, the statue honors William Donald Schaefer and the caring people of Baltimore, whose talents he recognized and used.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.