Walter Sondheim has had a tellar public policy career and has all the money and acclaim he needs. Yet, at 90, all he cares about is coming to work every day

NOT THE RETIRING TYPE

July 25, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Walter Sondheim is on the phone, trying to get out of being interviewed. He can't understand why the city's newspaper is coming around, yet again, to get the tale of his life. Who cares, he says.

Yes, he is turning 90, and that is worth remarking on. But all this fuss, the parties, the inquiring journalist. Is it really necessary? Still, after only the slightest bit of nudging, he relents, which is to be expected because, after all, Walter Sondheim is a nice guy.

On the scheduled day, he takes a seat behind the desk of his 15th-floor office at Baltimore's Legg Mason Tower and makes one last half-hearted try.

"Why waste the time? It really is embarrassing, because I think my friends who know me well figure, 'There he goes again,' " he says, then gets down to business. "Now, what do you want? What's on your mind? I feel sorry for you."

He is painfully modest, sometimes excruciatingly so. For 50 years he has been the consummate citizen, adviser to mayors and governors, a steady presence in his city's decades-long resurgence. He led the school board during desegregation. He was chairman of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, the organization that oversaw the renewal of downtown.

If he were a different kind of man, he could walk you down Charles Street, tug at your sleeve and say, "See, I made that happen. And over there. Me, again." He could stand at the Inner Harbor and go on about how he, Jim Rouse and others turned this town around. He is not that kind of man, not one to revel in yesterday's glory or seek accolades for past successes. There is too much to be done today.

Every workday he's up early, dressed in a suit and tie and out the door as he has been for nearly 70 years. These days he is senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee. He used to be president.

He could be anywhere. He has the money. His career with Hoch-schild, Kohn & Co. ended with his retirement at senior vice president and treasurer. Soon after, investor Warren Buffet bought the department store company.

Money doesn't bring him to this downtown office with its view of the towering NationsBank building, the one old-timers remember Maryland National. It isn't a yearning for fame that has him fielding calls, hustling to meetings, offering his considered judgment on public policy.

Then why is he here, when he could be in Aruba, Martha's Vineyard, the Cape?

"Well, you know, you touch on a real issue there. I'd get restless if I weren't doing anything," he says. "I think about it every now and then because I have no reason not to retire. I'm not doing anything that obviously someone else couldn't do. But waking up in the morning and not having a job just doesn't appeal to me."

Bring up the Golden Years, and Sondheim likely turns a deaf ear. There's this crazy idea about retirement, as if people can easily walk away from what has sustained them. Retire, and do what? Sometimes there is a consuming hobby or passion waiting. Sometimes, the work is its own passion.

Sally Michel, a longtime friend, notes how work can fuel a person's life. Think of the great pianist Artur Rubinstein, practically blind and giving recitals at 89; or jazz trumpeter Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham swinging at 91; or George Burns at 100 with his cigars and wisecracks. Now, think of Walter Sondheim.

"You see that when people have a purpose, a real serious purpose to their lives, that they stay alive a lot longer. Retirement is not a good thing," says Michel.

Yet Sondheim knows longevity has its downside. He says he can remember looking down the table in many board rooms and seeing three or four emeritus members sitting there, "every one of them sure that he could do the job better than I could, and they were probably right."

Now, he's Mr. Emeritus. The position doesn't sit well with him. "You can't vote, and an emeritus means you're not a participant anymore," he says.

He wonders if he has stayed too long. Maybe he's in the way. If his wife were alive, she would tell him.

But Janet died six years ago come September. They were married 58 years. He still wears his wedding ring.

"We never had a fight in 58 years. My daughter said it was because we were both too lazy," he says and smiles a bit, then talks about his loss. "To me it has been one continuous period. I don't mean a continuous period of mourning, but I think about her often. Missing her is institutionalized in me."

Without her, he turned to his closest friends, asking them to send him an anonymous letter if they thought he was slipping.

"I thought it was incredible, an incredible thing to do, to make that suggestion," says Michel, who received one of the letters. "I was just very moved by it."

Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr., whose friendship with Sondheim goes back nearly 30 years, also received one.

"I know that he worries and has expressed this publicly, 'Has he overstayed his welcome? Is he losing his acuity? Are people humoring him?' " says Embry. "But the opposite is true."

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