Dreamer, doer, Wizard of Odd Schaefer exits Maryland's public stage One of a kind

January 15, 1995|By Sandy Banisky and Doug Birch | Sandy Banisky and Doug Birch,Sun Staff Writers

Right to the end, William Donald Schaefer was tallying his achievements: A $60 million surplus. A triple-A bond rating. More than 10,600 memos commanding his bureaucrats to fix a problem. Now.

Nearly 40 years in public life, and Mr. Schaefer was still measuring his worth by counting up what he'd done. He wanted his successes numbered and heaped atop each other, a huge pyramid of triumphs, so we all could stand back and admire them.

He ordered his staff to whip up a summary: "The Top 225 Accomplishments of the Administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer." A few weeks later, he'd expanded the list to the top 390. He may be counting still.

It was always this way, through his 16 years on the Baltimore City Council, 15 years as Baltimore's mayor and eight years as governor:

More. Always more. Show them who's boss. Push and cajole and throttle the bums until you get what you want. Paint your name on all the signs. Invite the citizens to celebrate.

That's government, to Mr. Schaefer's mind. That's leadership.

This week, William Donald Schaefer, 73, is packing up and walking out of the State House -- leaving his mark on Baltimore, the state and our psyches.

Marylanders got used to seeing that freckled dome of a head, a caricaturist's dream, everywhere, in every kind of goofball get-up.

They tried to parse his sentences, which could jerk and ramble, clause piling upon incomplete clause. They braced for his scoldings. And they learned that when his jaw set and his cold blue eyes narrowed, he could whirl into a rage.

He was the Hero of Baltimore, accustomed to adulation. But by his last term as governor, Mr. Schaefer was brooding in the State House, bewildered and angered by low public approval ratings.

He believed in government -- at a time when the public was growing wary of government's tinkering with their lives. He insisted that government take an active interest in almost every problem: schools, crime, roads, welfare -- as well as such ephemera as lagging spirits or poor civic self-image.

He had no fancy theories -- just targets of opportunity. No ideology -- just a frantic desire to succeed. And to do that he had to get people moving. Pronto! This instant! Now.

One loyal aide to Mr. Schaefer summed up his governing strategy this way: "Ready, fire, aim."

"I think that Governor Schaefer always felt that the biggest abuse of power was not to use it," said former state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Montgomery County Republican.

He did more good, said one Baltimore civic activist. He made more mistakes. "He just plain did more."

Hours after the opening of Baltimore's Harborplace, which drew dazzling reviews in national magazines, an aide found Mayor Schaefer huddled in City Hall, scribbling.

Great day, she said. He shot her a permafrost scowl. "That already happened," he growled. "What the hell else is going on in the city?"

He wanted momentum. He nagged and nudged and did things his own unpolitic way.

The result, fans and critics agree, is that Mr. Schaefer will not be forgotten.

"Without question, he is the most important political figure in the state of Maryland in the last 100 years," said Bernard C. Trueschler, Baltimore Gas & Electric's retired chief executive officer. "He set the agenda. He was not a creature created by anybody. He was unique."

Marylanders saw him on their front pages and television screens, day after day, decade after decade -- beaming, mugging, sneering, cheering. He was devoted. That was clear. But what else motivated this most public of men remained a mystery.

"It wasn't until after I left that I realized I never knew the man," said Joan Bereska, who spent nearly 20 years as his toughest, closest lieutenant. "He is the most intensely private person I've

ever known."

'Think-big mayor'

Mr. Trueschler looks out from his Inner Harbor office and says, "Everything I see, from Camden Yards to that old sewage treatment plant near Little Italy that he renovated, that's all him. He did that."

There's the glass-and-concrete Baltimore Convention Center; as mayor, he pushed the state to build it. And there's the hole for its $150 million expansion, which he finessed as governor. The light rail tracks, the glass pyramids of the National Aquarium, the sleek new Columbus Center, the hotels and condominiums and offices. He begged or battled for them all.

Drive out through the neighborhoods, which Mr. Schaefer once prowled as Baltimore's Great Custodian. Drive farther, and you'll travel on new roads and bridges to the mountains, the bay and the beach. Maybe your downtown has changed: He's been an evangelist for revitalization from Frostburg to Cambridge.

You probably pay one of the many taxes or fees Mr. Schaefer raised, which helped him pull the state through the early '90s recession. Or you can squander your paycheck on Keno, thanks to Mr. Schaefer's appetite for gambling revenue.

To his allies, he was a political giant, one of the greatest governors of this century.

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