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C. Fraser Smith: This time, Schmoke not chasing history

Remember him as Breakthrough Man. In some ways, he was not his own man. He was history’s man. He seldom if ever complained about it, but his life was not always his own.

Kurt L. Schmoke, first elected black mayor of Baltimore, moved from City College to Yale to Harvard and Oxford to City Hall with “Can’t Miss” stamped on his forehead.

Can’t miss as a candidate for mayor, that is. He would be running in a city where blacks voted for whites but not the other way around.

Schmoke was going to change that history. His record was close to every parent’s dream.

His success seemed foreordained. He had a great smile and an Ivy League resume. But there was the real world. He still had to campaign and win. His appointed predecessor, Clarence H. “Du” Burns, ran a stronger race than many expected. Burns worked for Baltimore while Schmoke was winning a Rhodes scholarship.

Schmoke defeated Burns, but found himself in the wake of William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore’s all-time best mayor.

Schmoke made history. And yet his success had a down side. He would be running against Schaefer’s surrogate: the Inner Harbor.

Schaefer, who seemed to resent the younger man and did almost nothing to help him, used federal money to redraw the city skyline. And even if the money had been there, Schmoke might not have been the man to use it in service to some grand design. Schaefer had already done that.

Breakthrough Man was left to stabilize the city — not to preside over and lead a glamorous renaissance. He didn’t whine much, if at all. He made do with his trademark smile and stylish suspenders.

As the world turns, Schmoke returns now to face a situation similar to the Inner Harbor dilemma as the takes over the post of president at the University of Baltimore. He follows the dynamic and savvy Robert Bogomolny, who has transformed UB into a bright if still relatively small star. Before Bogomolny, UB had no definable presence in the city. Using some of the initiatives perfected by Schaefer, Bogomolny gave the city a vibrant, urban neighborhood campus.

The school’s imposing new law school building will surely be the center of an institution that has served well but anonymously. Bogomolny put it on the map. Once again, the glitzy grand design has been installed.

Still, Schmoke will thrive at UB. He won’t have to duplicate some iconic figure’s work. (Bogomolny was no Schaefer. Probably didn’t want to be. He did his work without much notice. Then suddenly there was there there.)

The former mayor returns with his own calm presence, his own charm. He will do well with the sherry and brie set, urging alumni and others to help support a school destined to struggle for adequate state support. He will have star power and personality that will serve him better than it did in City Hall.

The student body will embrace him. He’s youthful and smart and practiced in university leadership. He moves back to prominence in Baltimore from Howard University, where he was dean of the law school, among other titles.

Whether mayor was the right fit for a man of contemplative, measured style was not a calculation he could have made for himself. History directed him.

Baltimore is lucky to have him back. He is lucky to be in charge of an educational institution with a role in the further evolution of a city he knows well.

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