Melancholy leader confronts himself in a museum SCHAEFER revisits SCHAEFER

October 23, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

Years from now, when school children study the history of Maryland, they'll run across pictures of a man named William Donald Schaefer and wonder: Who the heck was this guy?

Who, they'll wonder, was this middle-aged man shaking hands with an ape named Godzilla at something called the City Fair? And could he be the same man who, in another picture, is breaking down -- just totally breaking down in grief -- about the sinking of a ship called the Pride of Baltimore? And isn't that him about to plunge into a seal tank, outfitted for the occasion in a striped Victorian swimsuit, a rubber duck tucked under his arm?

And why, they'll wonder, does this man who's photographed out boating with an American president named George Bush and a Russian one named Boris Yeltsin later show up in his undershirt to paint a Baltimore city school? Or dressed in a black cape and sombrero-like hat, posing as somebody called "The Shadow"?

Years from now, they'll see such pictures and wonder: What did this man do? Was he in public relations? Was he a maintenance man? A politician? A construction worker? An actor? A train conductor? An orchestra conductor?

Of course, those of us who've been a part of Maryland's history over the last 40 years know that William Donald Schaefer is all of those things. And more.

In fact, it's hard to imagine life around these parts without him turning up in some goofy costume or --ing off an Action Memo about potholes. But you'd better try. Because William Donald Schaefer is about to step out of the public spotlight and into private life.

It's been a long and winding road for the man who served four terms as mayor of Baltimore and two terms as governor; a road that seems to have had a photographer waiting at every turn. Now as part of The Long Goodbye, the Baltimore Museum of Art has assembled an exhibition of 50 photographs honoring his career.

There's a lot of history stored in these pictures. And for William Donald Schaefer a lot of emotion, too. That became obvious earlier this week as William Donald Schaefer took a slow walk through his past.

"That's the one that made me cry," Governor Schaefer said, pointing to a 1979 photo of himself with his old friend and political fund-raiser, Irvin Kovens. "He was my good friend. I remember he called me 'Shaky' Schaefer -- because I was always scared in an election."

The governor paused. "Without Irv Kovens, I wouldn't be here. The things that happened in the city wouldn't have happened. The things on the state level wouldn't have happened. . . . I had such high respect for him. You know, they always say a political boss, he pushes you around. Not him. He never asked for anything, never wanted me to do anything for him. Never, never, never."

'There's a lot of nostalgia there'

Next stop: a photograph of his mother, Tululu, and his old dog, Skippy, standing with him in 1971 on the porch of the West Baltimore home where Governor Schaefer was born.

The sight of it turned the governor's watery-blue eyes a bit more watery. "Oh, boy," he said, sighing deeply. "That's a picture of my mother -- just before my first inauguration as mayor."

He leaned in to study the picture. "The house is different now. This bush is there, but now there's two trees here." He still stays at the house from time to time and plans to keep it. "I've got a bedroom furnished upstairs, kitchen's furnished and there's a little furniture in the living room."

Another sigh. "There's a lot of nostalgia there," he said.

And the nostalgia, as visitors to the exhibition quickly find out, relates not only to his past but to ours as well.

Think about how long he's been around: When William Donald Schaefer entered political life in 1955, a postage stamp cost 3 cents, bus fare was 15 cents and a '55 Chevy went for about $2,000. Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. was Baltimore's mayor, and he presided over a booming downtown retail section: On Howard Street alone, you could shop at Hochschild Kohn, Hutzler's, Stewart's, The May Co., Schlesinger's.

All the talk about 1955 sparked a memory in Governor Schaefer about his father: "He was so proud when I won for City Council in '55. Then he died in '59. Never saw me become mayor. He would have loved it. Oh my gosh, he would have been so happy and so proud."

And maybe surprised; surprised at both the respect and the animosity his son has generated over the years.

William Donald Schaefer has been called everything from Mayor Annoyed -- which, one reporter observed, rhymes with paranoid -- to the Michelangelo of Mayors.

Call him what you will. The truth is, for better or worse, his personality has remained remarkably consistent over the span of his career.

He even looks the same: when he entered politics at the age of 34, he looked 50; now, at the age of 72, he still looks 50.

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