Baltimore loses a torch-bearer

May 26, 2000

Baltimore lost one of its heroes last week, when Jacques Schlenger died. Many people knew him as a brilliant lawyer; others of us also knew him as a builder of this community and a person who touched many lives individually.

One of Mr. Schlenger's greatest legacies is his contribution to The Leadership, a program of the Greater Baltimore Committee that has since 1984 supported the development of many of Baltimore's promising civic leaders.

I was fortunate to have Mr. Schlenger as my mentor in that program in 1985, and we continued our close relationship over the years.

I was always struck by his belief in Baltimore's ability to be better and his deep concern about all of Baltimore's children and families and their future. He understood that the strength of our society depends largely on our ability to teach people to think and to make sound decisions.

He understood also that Baltimore's future is directly connected to our ability to include people from diverse groups, including women and African-Americans, in its decision-making and power structure.

Most important, he believed deeply that Baltimore, indeed the nation, must harness the talents of people from all groups. Whether in his law firm or the community, he worked to identify the support talented people from diverse backgrounds who could excel.

On a personal level, I was struck by his remarkable, in fact insatiable, appetite for reading and discussing ideas.

I had the privilege of reading with him about a dozen of Anthony Trollope's novels and using the novels as a basis for our lively discussions about everything from the Baltimore's school system to 20th-century American society.

Our conversations were filled with great debate and much laughter. He could be feisty and funny one moment and reflective and compassionate the next. But, more important, his conversations with me reflected what he did with so many other people to challenge them to move beyond their comfort zone and grow.

I once invited Jacques to speak about Trollope to a group of inner-city college students. They intently watched and listened to him talk about fictional characters as if those characters lived among us. He challenged the students to visualize the characters and see how their relationships could teach us lessons about human nature and behavior.

He was an extraordinary teacher on many levels.

He had a substantial impact on a variety of academic and cultural institutions. As a former member of the Peabody Institute's advisory council, I will always remember his superb leadership of that organization through a very difficult period.

No doubt his ability to think critically and creatively, coupled with his determination to succeed, led to the preservation of that fine institution.

Most recently, as a member of UMBC's board of visitors, he provided my colleagues and me with valuable and substantive advice based on his broad experience with Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia. He pushed us to think broadly and aspire to be the best.

Whether talking about the Peabody, Center Stage or UMBC, Mr. Schlenger used his brainpower and his generous spirit to help set the course for Baltimore. In all of his relationships with this community, he gave the benefit of his keen insights. He had the uncanny ability to see things before others did and, sometimes, to see things others might never see.

His life, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, belonged to the community. It was a "splendid torch," which he wanted to make "burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

As a community, we must, in gratitude strive to carry that torch and make it burn even more brightly.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III

Baltimore

The writer is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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