ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer acknowledge last week that some of his very public outbursts over the past few months had been fueled by a very private concern -- the serious illness of his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.
The governor said Mrs. Snoops, who "has been very, very sick," was recuperating in the Governor's Mansion from an illness he did not name. Others close to the governor describe her as "gravely ill." She has made no public appearances in two months.
Mr. Schaefer said the 66-year-old retired health care administrator, who has been at his side throughout his political career, was recovering from surgery performed last winter to relieve pressure on the brain.
"It could have been much more serious," Mr. Schaefer said. "She being a nurse, she knew the symptoms. She had it taken care of.
"Now she's on medication that has side effects," the governor added. "But she's getting better. She's recovering. Nothing terminal."
In the aftermath of the November election and through the contentious legislative session, allies of the governor have said privately that Mr. Schaefer's worry over Mrs. Snoops distracted him and magnified his problems.
"There's a lot of truth there," Mr. Schaefer said this week, "because Hilda Mae has been very, very sick. She's had a very difficult time."
Legislators and friends of the state's first couple have been speculating quietly for months about Mrs. Snoops' increasing isolation and apparent health problems. But aides to the governor, when asked about her condition, either say they don't know anything or say that she is "fine."
One high-ranking state official said last week that Mrs. Snoops' medical condition was "the best-kept secret in town."
Mrs. Snoops and Mr. Schaefer are intensely protective of their personal lives. The two apparently have discussed details of her illness with only a few friends.
"I have a right to a private life," Mr. Schaefer said.
"This is not the kind of thing he talks about readily," one former aide said, recalling how Mr. Schaefer shied away from discussing his late mother's illnesses when he was mayor of Baltimore. He and his mother shared a West Baltimore row house until her death in 1983 at the age of 89.
Sen. Nancy L. Murphy, D-Baltimore County, said Mrs. Snoops "is in good spirits when I talk to her." But she said, "I'm concerned about her, too."
In acknowledging his concern for Mrs. Snoops' health last week, Mr. Schaefer went out of his way to emphasize that legislators also shared responsibility for his moodiness.
"Part of it was Hilda Mae," the governor said. "Part of it is the anxiety over a legislature that's tried to recapture the governor's office."
Mrs. Snoops, who divorced years ago, has been the official hostess of the Governor's Mansion since March 1987, soon after Schaefer took office. She has redecorated the mansion, presided over its public events and traveled with the governor on
official trips around the world.
By all accounts, Mrs. Snoops has ruled the mansion, its 15-person staff and $60,000-a-year supplies budget with an iron will. She recently clashed with legislators over an ongoing legislative audit of mansion spending and threatened to empty the mansion of donated furniture because of criticism of her redecorating efforts.
But Mrs. Snoops' illness has muted some criticism, several state officials said.
"The governor is very protective of Mrs. Snoops . . . . If you want to see his blood boil, then all you have to do is write a story about Mrs. Snoops," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.
An adviser to the governor who spoke on the condition he not be named said Mrs. Snoops was "gravely ill" and had been sick since last fall. "There is a lot of concern for her health."
Despite her illness, Mrs. Snoops continues to work a few hours each day in the mansion, Mr. Schaefer said. But she does not plan to resume her public schedule in the near future. "She's going to take her time to get well."
The governor and Mrs. Snoops are invited to a reception for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip later this month. Press aides say they have not been told if she will attend.
Her last official appearance was Feb. 28, when she spoke before a state board that oversees the Governor's Mansion.
That day, she walked unsteadily and looked puffy -- perhaps the effect of medication, observers said.
In January, at Mr. Schaefer's second inauguration, Mrs. Snoops walked through the State House and then held the Bible as the governor took the oath, but she had to be helped up the stairs. The governor's press aides said she had hurt her back in a fall.
On April 7, she had what was described as a "muscle spasm" and was taken from the mansion to Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.