Schaefer Packs Up His Many Personalities

January 08, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Love him or hate him, William Donald Schaefer is an unforgettable character. He is also the best news story this newspaper ever had.

In just the last three years, the number of articles mentioning his full name ran to 3,719. In the previous 20 years, we probably had another 25,000 stories about him as mayor or governor. And in the 16 years before that, we had countless more articles following his city council career.

He certainly provided me with plenty of good columns. And yet I've never been able to capture the full essence of Donald Schaefer. I've known him for 24 years -- he inadvertently gave me my first big break as a political reporter -- without really knowing him. He's truly the man of a thousand public faces.

He has cried in public. He's laughed in public. He has shouted. He's cursed. He has wallowed in self-pity. He's pleaded for the needy. He has blustered. He's boostered. He has admonished. He's challenged.

He's played the role of a buffoon, a promoter, a motivator, a comedian, a statesman, a clear-eyed analyst of public policy and human behavior.

He's been Baltimore's greatest mayor and one of Maryland's better governors.

He's given citizens 105 percent effort and absolute personal integrity. He's given his all for ''the people'' and yet has been shameless in his desire to leave his name on hundreds of buildings and other sites around the state.

He has promoted himself more than any recent governor, just as he promoted himself more than any Baltimore mayor before him.

Donald Schaefer permeates my office. His angry letters to me or my superiors fill my desk drawers. Photographs of him dominate my walls.

There he is strewn with confetti and wearing a party hat at some election-night bash. Below that photo, he's closing his briefing books and preparing to storm out of a radio debate with Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs in the 1986 campaign for governor.

Next, he's in National Guard camouflage, with aviator-style sunglasses, looking very much like his hero, George S. Patton.

Below that, he's presiding at a cabinet meeting beside Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg (when they were still speaking). They're wearing matching sweatshirts: His says, ''Things are going. . . great!!!'' Mr Steinberg's says, ''If they're not. . . smile anyway.''

Another photo, from an Ocean City liquor store, captures an ironic Eastern Shore sentiment (in light of all he did for that region) on a roadside advertisement: ''Help get rid of Schaefer/ $7.50 a case.''

And there's Donald Schaefer in mayoral white shirt, dark tie and dark pants -- plus a grass skirt -- dancing with two bikinied Hawaiian women at War Memorial Plaza.

Finally, there's a quotation from Mr. Schaefer that serves as a reality check. It is taped to my desk. He said it at a luncheon for a group of legislators. Two of them related it to me. Out of the blue, he brought up my name and launched into a harangue about a recent column, calling me ''a stupid nitwit, nothing more than a common bastard'' who ''doesn't do anything -- just sits around like the Three Stooges.''

That would deflate just about anyone's balloon.

Mr. Schaefer could be loony and wacko. Or he could be an incisive political philosopher. It was the wild mood swings that frustrated and enthralled people.

One Schaefer aide said Mr. Schaefer could humiliate and embarrass you with a brutal tongue-lashing at one meeting and sometime later lavish such praise on your work that tears came to your eyes. Such heart-felt compliments kept aides glued to his side.

He is a totally dedicated elected leader. Public service fills every waking hour. He has sacrificed a private life to devote full time to doing good for people.

That's why it is so hard to contemplate William Donald Schaefer as Citizen Schaefer. He's been in elective office 40 years. He hasn't driven his own car in 23 years. He's had police protection all that time, too. He's got no vocation or avocation to turn to. No children or grandchildren to nurture and spoil.

One way or another, Mr. Schaefer will return to the public arena. He's filled with ideas and thoughts on how to help people. College Park may serve as a temporary locale. Professor Schaefer. He could give some astounding lectures. But he's not one to wade through piles of exams and term papers.

No, Baltimore is where his heart is. He could end up voicing his views on this opinion page, or even as a letters-to-the-editor writer. Journalist Schaefer.

He has volunteered to come up to this newspaper every few weeks and tell us exactly what we're doing wrong in our news and editorial sections. Ombudsman Schaefer.

He might be drafted by the next governor to serve as a roving economic-development celebrity for Maryland. He's a fabulous booster, after all. Ambassador Schaefer.

Or he could be hired by his loyal friends in Ocean City to promote the Atlantic vacation town he so adores. Huckster Schaefer.

He'll serve on prestigious boards of directors, delivering common-sense advice to management on how to get the most out of employees. Capitalist Schaefer.

But most likely, he'll find a way to remain in the political arena. He's a valuable asset dying to be tapped. If he's not tapped quickly, he could get the urge to run for office again. What's he got to lose?

There's a phrase for someone like William Donald Schaefer. Sui generis. In a class by himself. Unique. A figure such as the man from Edgewood Street comes along once in a lifetime. In my book, he's Marylander of the Century.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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