"Just another talking head," is how my pal, the curmudgeonly photographer, described Richard Hunter the day he arrived in Baltimore to assume the post of superintendent of schools. "An education bureaucrat. They all sound the same."
The photographer had just come from Hunter's introductory press conference. I assessed his comments cautiously because, as I said, he was a curmudgeonly sort, cynical to a whisker, a glazed-eye who has seen it all and is bored by most of it. To him, Doc Hunter was just so much blah-blah-blah, a man who exuded neither confidence nor charisma, as inspirational as paneling.
That was Doc Hunter on first impression.
And that's Doc Hunter on last impression.
What little passion the man had he saved for an eloquent parting shot at Kurt Schmoke, the man who brought him to town, and who gave him the benefit of doubt before giving him the boot.
My photographer pal had Hunter pegged. Boring, lame, conventional -- exactly what the school system did not need in a new super. This business about Schmoke undercutting him is tiresome. What was Schmoke to undercut? What did the guy do besides join the Downtown Athletic Club?
If you ask me, Schmoke waited too long to buy this guy a train ticket. He had campaigned for mayor with education his big-ticket item. And he won. For the first time in a long time, after years of official neglect, Baltimore was going to have a mayor actively involved in the school system. That was the promise. And the person Schmoke picked for the super's job would go a long way toward fulfilling that campaign promise.
And whom did Schmoke come up with?
Pardon my yawn.
I held it as long as I could until, at long last, I just couldn't hold it anymore.
Maybe there was something charming about the guy. Maybe he gave a great interview. Maybe it was his suits; he was a good dresser, I'll give him that. Maybe the guy appealed to Schmoke because they were kindred spirits -- both kind of bright, kind of nerdy, the kind of men who relish a hearty game of Scrabble and a cup of Sleepy Time Tea.
Those of us who granted him a long honeymoon decided about a year into his tenure that this nice guy from Chapel Hill just wasn't going to cut it. My photographer pal's first judgment of the gentlemanly Hunter prevailed.
Was it unfair to judge the guy so early?
Not at all.
Public confidence in public officials is built on an instinctual reaction. People quickly size up a public official. A good one is a human construct of image, words, actions and results -- probably in that order. Richard Hunter gave the impression of a dignified yet ponderous man, a professional educator more interested in restructuring bureaucracy than in taking risks. And who wanted that?
Kurt Schmoke's choice was a bad one. It was as if the new mayor, in trying to dress up a tired living room, opted for some nice lace doilies.
It didn't help at all. The sofa needed new upholstery. The walls needed to be ripped out and replaced. And there was Schmoke putting doilies on the divan.
The school system needed to be totally revamped. It needed a tough leader. It needed a man whose words and actions would spark a flame to rekindle public confidence in the city schools. It needed a shark, a dealer, a guy who could do the city's bidding in Annapolis and in the City Council. Richard Hunter had no political savvy. Schmoke had very little. So the city school system had three years of quiet anarchy.
Schmoke is running for mayor again, and Hunter is saying farewell.
It was, relatively speaking, grand theater when the usually-reserved Doc Hunter took his shot at the almost equally reserved Kurt Schmoke.
Actually, I give The Quiet Man credit for one thing: He fired the first genuine political shot of the mayoral campaign. And Hunter isn't even running -- except away from Baltimore.
He said Wednesday what Du Burns and Bill Swisher should be saying. (It's what Swisher would be saying if he weren't so busy drawing up plans for his "School For The Sports.") Hunter managed, in a 10-minute swan song, to give Burns and Swisher the only available ammunition against Schmoke. With some degree of self-sacrifice, Hunter scorched the earth. He seemed to say, "If you think I was the problem with Baltimore City schools the last three years, just remember: Kurt Schmoke picked me."