And don't forget this: He ran for mayor

January 11, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A long time ago, when he was working in a clattering newsroom at Lombard and South streets, at a place called the News American, Byron Roberts got the idea of a lifetime.

"I'm gonna run for mayor," he declared, looking up from his typewriter. He was a rewrite man with maybe $35 in his pockets and not a political connection anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

"You're crazy," everybody said. "You could never get elected."

"I know," Roberts said, "but this way, when I die, the obituaries will all have to say, 'Byron Roberts, former candidate for mayor of Baltimore. ' "

Very well, then.

With sadness, but with a respectful nod to an old pal's puckish sense of humor, the following is hereby announced:

Byron Roberts, former candidate for mayor of Baltimore, former newspaperman, former TV editorial writer, former government flack, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Tuesday morning. He had a quadruple heart bypass and was recovering but suffered a massive stroke and died. He was 64.

He figured the line about running for mayor would make him sound like a man of substance to those who didn't know him and give one final chuckle to those who did. Over a lifetime, he provided more than his share of laughs. He was a bright, witty, insightful man who looked a little like the actor Gig Young, and behind all the laughter was a man with a social conscience who'd seen hard military time in Korea when the fighting over there was at its worst.

He got the idea to run for mayor back in the late '60s but didn't get around to filing until the mid-'70s. By then, he figured he'd actually give himself a fighting chance. He'd run not for mayor, but for City Council, and thus walked into the Board of Elections one afternoon to file for a 2nd District council seat.

"That'll be a $50 filing fee," an election official said.

"What have you got that's cheaper?" Roberts asked.

He didn't do too badly, actually. He filed as a Republican for reasons relating to a deeply held philosophy passed down through generations of Baltimore persons who file as Republicans.

"July and August," he explained, "are too hot for campaigning. I'll be a Republican and wait till it's cool before I start."

There was no Republican primary that summer, owing to there being only two candidates for three councilmanic seats. In the general election, Roberts got almost 4,000 votes, not enough to win, which was a kind of blessing for him.

"It's a good thing I lost," he admitted, "because I didn't know where the council met anyhow. I'd have to ask directions."

Behind the joke, though, he wanted to get a few ideas across. The city needed to get an imagination, or suffer the consequences.

He ran for mayor in 1983, knowing nobody would beat William Donald Schaefer but hoping he could at least get a Republican primary win against Sam Culotta, who declared that summer, "I want to maintain the pride of the Republican Party, whatever that is," and Melvin Perkins, the constant office-seeker of that era who listed his home residence as one no-fixed-address after another.

Culotta won the primary, but Roberts had all the best lines, some of which still sound pretty good. Among them:

* "Sell the city. we could sell it to Dubuque and Wichita. They've been looking for a seaport. Then we could rent back parts from them. And if we're late paying, we'll tell then the check is in the mail."

* "The MTA bus service is terrible, and the drivers are arrogant about it. Take from a guy that doesn't drive. We've got to get everybody together and have a Penny Day, where everybody pays their fares with nothing but pennies. It'll drive them crazy., and maybe they'll shape up."

* "Keep the public schools open 12 months a year. Of course the kids are illiterate. They don't go to school. And let's get away from all this emphasis on academics. We need to put practical training into schools. They teach school now as though everybody wants to go to college, which is a phony idea perpetuated by the colleges, which need the money."

Asked what he'd have done if he'd been elected. Roberts replied, "I don't know. Probably phone in sick."

He laughed a little ruefully at the thought. Life was a smile if you lived it right. But we all wonder, at the end, how the final summing-up will read.

"I'm running for mayor," he laughed a long time ago, "to pad my obit. You run for mayor, they can't run your obit in agate type. Now it's gotta say, you know, 'He never drove a car, and he ran for mayor.' "

And, long ago, he figured out how to give everybody a smile, even after he was gone.

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