Schaefer's heart was for enduring, not for leaving

January 17, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In his very first run for mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer was assessed by Dr. Ross Pierpont, chief of surgery at Maryland General Hospital who happened, not by chance, to be Schaefer's Republican opponent.

"They're crazy if they vote for Schaefer," Pierpont muttered one afternoon. "With his temperament, with his heart, he couldn't survive a single term in office."

That was 25 years ago, and 15 years into Schaefer's 40-year political run. He had the heart for it, all right. But not the heart for leaving, which has finally, irrevocably arrived.

Go back four years for a piece of Schaefer. One morning in his final campaign, he stood at Calvert and Pratt streets, waving his right arm imploringly and holding a bright political placard in his left hand. For moments, though, there was nobody out there to see him. The waving had become strictly reflex. And here he was, looking out at this vastness, trying to grab the attention of the whole wide, empty world, which was inexplicably getting on with its business without him.

It's a signature piece for today. Schaefer vacates Annapolis feeling ignored (or worse) by many who should love him. He's implored us to pay attention for 40 years, and now he's staring at emptiness. The buildings they've named after him, the honors they've piled on him, haven't healed the wounds in his heart. He hears the cheers, but he's bloodied by the boos.

Some of it, he's brought on himself: those dopey letters to ticked-off constituents, those visits to people's houses. It was just Schaefer working out his frustrations, trying to talk to them as a guy from West Baltimore. He didn't seem to get it: He wasn't that guy any more, he was the governor, and the letters and the visits looked like acts of bullying, even if bullying hadn't occurred to him.

He never had the heart for criticism. On the day Esquire magazine called him the best mayor in America, he called it the worst piece of journalism he'd ever seen. That night, with City Fair revelers all around him, Schaefer stood unnoticed in a little alcove at Lexington Market, brooding openly, accepting no consolation from friends telling him he should feel proud.

"You don't understand," Schaefer said. His eyes were blazing. "That piece was just devastating. And everybody in the whole country's going to read it."

"But it calls you the best mayor in America," somebody said.

"Have you seen it?" In the shadowy alcove, with the lights of the fair just out of reach, Schaefer seemed haunted. "They talked about my mother's funeral. Now why did they have to write about a thing like that?"

He turned his face away. Later an aide said Schaefer was cut by the funeral description. And the tales of cursing. And the inference that Schaefer has no real friends.

He departs now with the same wonder: What if his so-called friends only embraced him for his power? It's a puzzling notion for those who always thought Schaefer intended friendlessness as his personal image: the man so dedicated to his community that he had no time or inclination for ordinary relationships.

It's too bad if the last few twilight years, with the money dried up and his popularity waning, wipe out people's memories. He's the man who inherited a dying city and bluffed it back to life. Washington helped, but it was Schaefer who instilled vigor and self-confidence that had gone away.

Final memory of Schaefer in all his unpredictable feistiness: At the 1988 Democratic national convention in Atlanta, the Maryland delegation was taken to a place that was reportedly the model for Tara, in "Gone With the Wind."

By chance, I'm standing next to Schaefer as a TV crew comes over, along with a guy from the local Chamber of Commerce and a pretty young lady.

"Governor," says the Chamber guy, "this is Miss Melanie Meadows. She's Miss Atlanta County, 1988. Doesn't she look just like Scarlett O'Hara?"

Schaefer gives the young lady the once-over, glances over and notices the TV camera's running.

"Yeah," the governor of Maryland says. "And I look just like Rhett Butler."

Then, turning to me, he adds: "Don't I, Olesker?"

"Yes," I said quickly.

Because I think he knew where I lived.

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