Walter Sondheim sets standard for civic duty

Citizen ideal: Charles Center, Inner Harbor, accountable schools are among his monuments.

Marylanders Of The Century

October 10, 1999

GOING STRONG, Walter Sondheim Jr. is awaiting the millennium like everyone else. It will mark the seventh decade in which he has led efforts to improve Baltimore and Maryland public life.

When problems fester, mayors and governors put Mr. Sondheim on boards. When the problems are crucial, they make him chairman.

He is the motivator, mediator, facilitator, diplomat, tactician and consensus-builder, harnessing diverse personalities to a common goal.

Other people burn out at this sort of thing. Mr. Sondheim, 91, just gets better. Self-effacing, humorous at his own expense, he endlessly turns modesty into power and uses the power for good.

Private-public partnership is where Walter Sondheim came in. Charles Center in the 1970s, the Inner Harbor in the 1980s and public school accountability in the 1990s are among his monuments. He is the consummate team player, giving fulsome credit to others.

In 1942, Mr. Sondheim was a second-generation executive of Hochschild-Kohn department store when he was drafted to head the U.S. Employment Service in Baltimore. This meant guiding workers from nonessential to essential jobs on the home front of World War II. Inspired, he joined the Navy and went to Cleveland.

There, he wangled his young family into Cleveland's public housing, which made him, a dozen years later, one of the few heads of a public housing authority with a tenant's experience.

Back home, he re-entered public service in 1948 on the city school board. In 1954, when Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. elevated Mr. Sondheim to chairman, he was also a board member of nine other civic and charitable groups.

A week later, the board was confronted by the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools. The next day, Mr. Sondheim led the board in discarding race as a determining factor in school assignment. Baltimore became the first school system south of the Mason-Dixon Line to comply with that landmark ruling.

In 1957, a catch-all of city agencies was consolidated into the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Administration, with Mr. Sondheim as its first chairman. He also took a back-room, cheerleading role in founding the private-sector Greater Baltimore Committee.

Downtown renewal spurred Mr. Sondheim into public service once again in the 1970s when he joined the board of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, then became its chairman. He had a hand in all downtown development and came to personify the Baltimore renaissance. Planners worldwide sought his advice.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke put Mr. Sondheim in charge of a two-year study of downtown development in 1989. Some of its ideas live on in the Mount Vernon Cultural District and the ambitious west side renewal plan.

William Donald Schaefer, as mayor, turned to Mr. Sondheim as a trusted adviser. When Mr. Schaefer became governor, he appointed his friend to lead a study of school performance. The result: accountability, accreditation and new tests -- what people nationwide laud as school reform.

The next governor, Parris N. Glendening, talked Mr. Sondheim into joining the state school board that was implementing those reforms. Last year, when Mr. Sondheim turned 90, school board colleagues elected him their president. This year, they did it again. He's also serving on 25 other boards and foundations.

Some thought Mr. Sondheim might slow down after the death of his beloved wife of 58 years, Janet, in 1992. In 1997, fearing he had lost competence without knowing it, he sent a request to 10 close associates, asking them to write him anonymous letters advising him when to hang up his spikes.

Their emphatic repudiations formed the basis of a Wall Street Journal article featuring Mr. Sondheim as poster child for elder power and vitality.

Learned texts describe the ideal public citizen, shouldering civic responsibilities, answering every call. This abstraction must look, sound and act a great deal like Walter Sondheim Jr.

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