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C. Fraser Smith: The legacy of a man who hated to choose

To govern is to choose.

You can’t do everything. You don’t have the bucks. You don’t have unlimited energy. So you choose.

The late William Donald Schaefer hated that reality. People were always after him to set priorities, to say what he absolutely, bottom line had to have.

He refused. He demanded everything — particularly from legislators or governors who controlled the purse strings. If you set priorities, you were setting limits. No way.

And, yet, he set them himself. He scanned the endless conveyor belt of issues and concerns and problems and chose the ones he thought he could solve. Not that he ever admitted any such choosing.

Take schools. He gets some criticism in these days of assessment for failing to deal with the schools. He knew they were a problem for a city that wanted to keep the families it had and attract new ones.

I’m sure he did more than this, but what I remember from my days covering him at City Hall was his annoyance over headlines about yet another set of bleak test scores from school headquarters on North Avenue. It was as if the problem might be less severe if the papers stopped running those stories.

He wanted things to improve, but he chose not to fight that fight. He decided it would not be the best use of his talents. He thought the schools were a political thicket that would ensnare him.

A 360-degree biography

He thought he could deal with the business community — he could give them a new downtown and, in the process, he could make the city feel better about itself.

Standing near his statue Tuesday as the funeral cortege arrived at the Inner Harbor, I realized more acutely that Schaefer’s bricks and mortar legacy was all around me. Here was an awesome, 360-degree biography: hotels, office buildings, an aquarium, a science center, a waterside esplanade — soaring reminders of a city’s effort to redefine itself.

The scene was also a reminder of one man’s will to prevail against “impossible” and “we can’t do that” and all the other excuses. He found his way around things. He wanted to help people and he thought people could help themselves.

When the neighborhood groups petitioned for help, he would invariably challenge them to do something first. He loved talent and ideas. He was a chemist of human interaction. He made synergy.

On Tuesday, the Schaefer statue and those who came to see it had a glimpse of the Pride of Baltimore II, the second of two schooners built in Baltimore. Tied up nearby, its Baltimore banner flew high overhead. These ships sailed the world giving testimony to the wonders of the city.

Each of these projects had a Schaefer narrative. The first Pride sank, taking its captain and three crewmen with it. Schaefer was distraught for weeks.

Stirring the drink

In the near-distance across the water stood the sharp-angled outlines of the National Aquarium where on June 15, 1981, Schaefer made his famous splash heard round the world — his swim with the seals.

Who imagined any of this before Schaefer? Actually, a few had imagined something: Mayor Theodore McKeldin and the urban development visionary James Rouse. Schaefer, though, was the straw that stirred the drink.

On Tuesday, after the motorcade left, a man stood next to the statue, smiling broadly and tipping his gray top hat. The man had a bright blue ribbon-like ID cord around his neck. In luminous white letters were the words “thank you.”

A top-hat salute had William Donald Schaefer written all over it. Nobody paid much attention, though. The master of political street theater — the man who chose his priorities well — had moved on.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR, 88.1. His column appears Fridays and occasionally on other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org. He is the author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography,” published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.