At 75, Schaefer still shines Settled: The former governor marks a milestone in years and accomplishments as he finds, in retirement, new ways to give.

November 02, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Happy Diamond Jubilee, William Donald Schaefer.

In a manner befitting the House of Windsor or perhaps a former governor and Baltimore mayor with a penchant for public celebration, you have been feted with birthday cakes for a week. You have literally blown out candles at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Although today is your 75th birthday, the celebrations truly reach a climax tomorrow when hundreds of invited well-wishers will gather at City Hall to honor your life and accomplishments.

As you bask in adulation, could it be that you, the irascible, quirky, aggravating, workaholic, theatrical, impatient, outspoken city cheerleader, have found a measure of happiness? Have you finally made peace with retirement?

"I'm learning," said Schaefer, whose schedule still requires no fewer than three offices, three secretaries (one full time, two part time) and a driver. "You leave a business you were in for 40 years and it stops overnight. That's not so easy."

Action, not reflection, has been the Schaefer hallmark. But friends and colleagues agree that he has begun to gradually adapt to civilian life, albeit grudgingly.

"There was a period of acclimation," said Zelig Robinson, Schaefer's lawyer and friend. "William Donald Schaefer wasn't born to be a laid-back citizen."

When he left office 22 months ago, Schaefer wasn't prepared for some ordinary chores -- driving his own car, getting his shirts to the laundry, pumping gas or working an automated teller machine. As governor or mayor, he had staff to handle those things.

The first time he went grocery shopping, he was surprised by the selection. When he finally loaded his cart and a cashier asked, "Paper or plastic?" he pulled out his wallet, thinking the choice was between credit cards and currency.

"It's kind of funny and sad at the same time," said Paul E. Schurick, his former press secretary. "He's had to learn things that others take for granted."

But such things can be learned relatively quickly. The far more difficult task is to accept the loss in power, prestige and attention. Without them, friends worried, he would lose his sense of purpose and usefulness.

A few setbacks

Indeed, in the first year of retirement, the former governor met no shortage of setbacks. A stint as television commentator didn't work out, nor was he successful as a radio talk show host or community newspaper publisher.

The Democrat who endorsed George W. Bush for president in 1992 hinted at a run for mayor in 1995 and showed little reluctance to criticize Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It won Schaefer a kind of perverse political trifecta: unpopular in the White House, the State House and City Hall.

"Some people can handle retirement and fade away easily," said Walter Sondheim Jr., a longtime friend. "But with the kind of activism that marked his life, he's the kind of person for whom it's a terrible transition."

With endowed posts at the University of Maryland College Park and the Johns Hopkins University, Schaefer took up teaching.

At College Park, he was expected to lecture graduate journalism students. It was an assignment fraught with peril for a politician with a rocky relationship with the press and a stream-of-consciousness speaking style.

But a curious thing happened. After a nervous start, Professor Schaefer has begun to feel more comfortable talking about events in his life.

It was as if the students' questions forced him to analyze an almost wholly instinctive political style.

"I think it also gave him a feeling of relevance," said Catherine I. Riley, a former state senator who teaches the class with Schaefer. "He wasn't just some old-timer stuck away somewhere."

At "Politics According to Schaefer," an evening adult-education class he taught this fall at Roland Park Country School, the trademark Schaeferisms were easily loosed. In the final class last week, he enthusiastically expounded on his philosophy, including the infamous phrase, "Do it now."

Sharing wisdom

"Time is always against us," he told the 30 or so students. "I tried to emphasize that."

When he isn't teaching, Schaefer commutes from his Pasadena townhouse to Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, a large downtown law firm.

While he is licensed to practice, Schaefer is more a senior adviser than workaday lawyer.

His schedule is impressively full, and he says he's working "as hard now as when I was governor." Between speaking engagements, charity work, meetings and lunches, he typically keeps a 12-hour workday.

Schaefer visits his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, nearly every day at her North Baltimore nursing home.

Seeing her in pain is one of the "real sad parts" of his life, he said.

"I had no children or grandchildren," he said quietly. "It was Hilda Mae and I for 30 years. It was very special to me."

It also clearly frustrates Schaefer to see the problems facing the city and to be powerless to do anything about them. He can't simply dispatch an aide or make a call.

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