Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

C. Fraser Smith: Willard Hackerman, city father

When they unveiled the statue of William Donald Schaefer at the Inner Harbor, Willard Hackerman stood in the audience, quietly as always.

I thought on that day that Hackerman might really have been memorialized, too — and not just because he had underwritten the cost of the statue.

When you did a 360-degree scan of the surrounding downtown skyscape, Hackerman’s company, Whiting-Turner Contracting, had built much of it: the convention center, the National Aquarium, the World Trade Center.

Nor was it just the sparkling new buildings that might have afforded him prominence. He’d been available to Schafer for a multitude of tasks.

When a plant built for solid waste disposal became an embarrassing problem, Hackerman took over. Watching Schaefer fume and frown during a meeting on the failed plant, Hackerman went to him afterwards.

“Look I don’t know what I can do, but if I can help, I’ll do what I can,” he said. “I don’t like to see you like this.”

When there were plans to turn a Mount Vernon landmark into a bed and breakfast, Schaefer held out for something more dignified. Hackerman bought the building for $1 million and turned it over to the city.

When a strike threatened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Hackerman provided an infusion of cash that helped end the walkout.

“Every time there was a crisis like this, he was the go-to guy,” said Sandy Hillman just before Tuesday’s funeral at Beth Tfiloh Synagogue. An admirer of both men, the Schaefer loyalist said: “With Willard, it was about more than the giving. It was about how you lived your life.”

No one will ever know how many causes and people he helped, she said.

Hackerman steered clear of the press whenever he could — which was, essentially, all the time. Yet people in the community knew him. About 500 mourners — friends and admirers and political figures, including the governor — came to the service Tuesday.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg reported a meeting with Hackerman near the end of his life.

Leaning over Hackerman’s bed, he said: “It’s Rabbi Wohlberg … do you have enough strength to sign a check?”

Hackerman smiled “that wonderful, benign smile.”

One always wonders what goes into the making of such a man. Surely his start in life explains some of it. His family was quite poor. He somehow convinced the Johns Hopkins University to accept his tuition payments on an installment basis.

And there was more to overcome: anti-Semitism, for example. His first employer apparently would never have hired him had he known Hackerman was Jewish. The young man then saved a foundering company and built it into the fourth-largest contracting firm in the country.

Early on, he thought he had blown his big chance when he supervised the digging of a trench, making it twice as deep ordered. When he got back to his office he had a message informing him that the plans had been changed: the ditch actually would have to be twice as deep as first thought. No wonder he always said the big three in his life were God, his family and Whiting-Turner.

I tried to convince him once that he should let people know more about his company and his life. Way too late. He’d decided against that years earlier. Too much like self-aggrandizement maybe.

My thought was that people should know about businessmen who believe they have an obligation to help the city and its citizens.

There was some talk among the mourners Tuesday about Willard and the ancient city fathers: Johns Hopkins, George Peabody and Enoch Pratt. Did Hackerman belong in that company?

Many, not including Hackerman himself, might say: worth considering.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]