Wm. Donald Schaefer, Renaissance man

A titan: The tempestuous boss who proved that cities could run well -- even prosper

Marylanders Of The Century

September 26, 1999

When he was mayor of Baltimore, his promoters insisted he was married to the city, had no other life, lived only to serve.

With William Donald Schaefer, life surpassed hype.

He compiled an extraordinary record of achievement in Baltimore, devoting himself to its welfare for half a century. Machine Democrats launched him, but his own success in office gave him invincibility. Stratospheric poll rat- ings allowed him to leverage costly public works projects.Unseen innovations that made government more responsive were also part of his legacy.

He built momentum for a tired city with a succession of grand strokes -- the National Aquarium, the Convention Center, renovation of City Hall, Harborplace, the World Trade Center, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, PSINet Stadium -- a succession of Normandy-like clean-up campaigns. His political strength, his personality and the symbolism of progress enabled him to prevail against opponents who might have defeated him or his projects.

He gave his city a new Main Street -- the Inner Harbor -- when the old ones began to fade. He introduced a new industry -- tourism -- when no one thought such a thing possible in dowdy, old Baltimore.

He re-invented government a decade before that phrase was adopted by scholars and other politicians. American mayors had been ceremonial figures or defiant barons of patronage. He became a super development chief, enlisting businessmen and neighborhood improvement leaders alike by showing why their efforts mattered.

He infused a superb staff with a measure of his derring-do. He attracted the best volunteers, young men and women who saw their personal and financial future inextricably bound up with the fate of their city.

The buffoonery of his public relations exploits -- not to mention his Vesuvian temper -- concealed a more discerning and instinctive leader who was willing to seem silly if it helped his city. Often criticized for being a "bricks and mortar" man, his real construction project was the spirit of Baltimoreans. He willed the city's doubting populace to give itself a break, to see its own potential.

That sort of leadership is the essence of politics. Veteran pols laughed at him a bit, thinking of him as an a-political man, a curiosity: "Like an astronaut who didn't like to fly," one of them said.

Few of his contemporaries soared as high. A four-term member of the city council, four-term mayor and two-term governor, he came out of impatient retirement to become the state's comptroller -- and to resume his position on the Board of Public Works where once again he could influence statewide affairs.

He made many contributions in Annapolis, visible and invisible. Against the advice of his cabinet -- and against his own misgivings -- he signed legislation that gave citizens and state workers access to a new system for adjudication of pension and employee grievances. Some 50,000 cases -- of critical dollar-and-cents significance to individuals -- are heard every year in a system thought to be a model for the nation.

In Baltimore, where his footprint is deepest, Mr. Schaefer turned the apparatus of city services into a responsive muscle. If he heard that garbage was not being picked up, he followed the trucks to find out if this was true. He appointed graffiti patrols in public housing projects, invoking a zero tolerance approach to visual pollution: he knew that every graffito or abandoned car became invisible in a day. He appointed a follow-up officer, knowing that even his most driven and conscientious staffer would succumb to procrastination.

No boss ever gave his lieutenants more room to innovate. He demanded creativity, attention to detail, respect for people -- "Caring," he called it. His recruits worked fiendishly hard because they knew the rewards -- and consequences -- of bad concepts or poor execution.

He had his failings, to be sure. He gave far less of his energy to the schools.

He thought high-rise public housing could be saved and might not have allowed its demolition had he remained mayor.

He ran roughshod over rules and regulation -- and people -- on occasion.

He gave little help to his successor in the mayor's office.

He demanded more of people than even his most loyal staffers could be expected to give.

He wrote nasty letters to Marylanders who, he thought, dared to oppose him.

His moods -- though sometimes useful to him -- sometimes fell beneath the dignity of the office. Yet, most of these trespasses were more hurtful to him than to the city or to the state.

When he ran for state comptroller in 1996, voters re-endorsed his entire career. Collectively, they said what his loyalists said: Maryland needs his energy, his instinct for what works. At 77, when most men and women are enjoying retirement, he went back to work.

"I felt alive again," he said.

Of course: For him, life is public service.

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