The Morgan State University marching band played a rousing brass and drum stomp, the choir sang "Happy Birthday," an 8-foot high cake appeared on stage and for the first time, last evening William Donald Schaefer looked like he might be speechless.
"What can you say when you have so many great friends over such a period of time," he said, his voice deep with emotion and sincerity. "I just can't put into words how lucky I am to know you.
"Tonight is a tribute to you," he went on. "If you look 'round the city and state and see what has been accomplished by you. I thank you all."
His audience in Morgan's new Carl G. Murphy Fine Arts Center was made up of about 500 people, famous and unknown, great and small, all friends he made during the half century of his political career.
He's Maryland's comptroller now and 80 years old. Some of the people at the party remember when he was a young lawyer running for the Baltimore City Council.
Schaefer shook hands with nearly every one of them for an hour-and-a-half as the party began. He rarely missed a name and he recalled an anecdote about most of them. They represented a remarkable slice of Baltimore and Maryland life.
"How's it feel to be 80?" asked Rosie Lundford, who's 71.
"She doesn't look a day over 55," he said.
Lundford was a City Hall telephone operator when he was mayor. She comes to all his birthday parties.
"I worked in all his campaigns," she said. "He gave me my job when he became mayor."
He put his arm around Walter Sondheim. Sondheim's about a dozen years older than Schaefer. He was instrumental in the renewal of the Inner Harbor and remains a close friend and confidante.
"He has more integrity than anybody I met in my life," Schaefer said.
Betty Martin lives a couple of blocks from where Schaefer grew up in West Baltimore. She's been president of the Lyndhurst Community Association for 20 years.
"She wouldn't let the neighborhood deteriorate," he said.
"I love him," Martin said. "He is a people person. He always puts people first."
No question it was an old-fashioned love-fest. Schaefer hugged and kissed and touched and shook hands with everybody who cared to get in line. He was in his element. He would have kept on all night, if Lainy Lebow-Sachs, who was his chief aide when he was governor and was responsible for organizing this party, did not move the line along with the tough love of a Marine drill sergeant.
Schaefer beamed when Sister Mary Thomas Zinkland stood before him with Sister Elizabeth Anne Corcoran and Sister Jeremy Daigler. They were all nurses at Mercy Medical Center in the old days. Sister Mary Thomas was Mercy's president.
"She was with my mother when she died," Schaefer said.
Sister Mary Thomas is small and frail but very bright.
"I'm almost as old as him," she said, cautiously. She likes him very much.
"He's honest," she said.
Schaefer met Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor, coming in the door and told her how much he liked it when she sits in for Gov. Parris N. Glendening at the weekly meetings of the state Board of Public Works.
"You're so quiet," he told her, which was a not very subtle dig at the governor with whom he is frequently at loggerheads - and a no-show at the party.
The souvenir program for the party showed Schaefer as a city councilman, city council president, mayor, governor of Maryland and now state comptroller.
Alan Walden, the WBAL personality who was master of ceremonies, made the old joke about how the guy can't hold a job.
And he introduced a 20-minute video tribute which showed Schaefer's friends and buddies and political colleagues - from Townsend to former governor Marvin Mandel to Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, to Gene Raynor, former state elections chief, to Herb Belgrad, the former head of the Maryland Stadium Authority.
All said what a great guy Schaefer is.
Schaefer said that last night's celebration was about the eighth 80th birthday party he's had. His birthday was actually Nov. 2.
"Many of you know," Walden said, "Governor Schaefer loves birthday parties."