Reflecting on Orlinsky's life of lost potential

February 12, 2002|By Michael Olesker

LIFE WAS simpler when William Donald Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore and Wally Orlinsky president of the City Council. Schaefer took care of all potholes in every alley in town, while Wally built castles in the air.

Orlinsky was the great imaginer of his time, a classic Kennedy liberal who thought government really could work things out, and that people from different backgrounds had more that bound them than divided them.

He was the brilliant son of a Talmudic scholar, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland law school with a head bursting with large and sometimes fanciful ideas - but he became passionate defending the importance of a linguistic blur such as Highlandtown's Mimi DiPietro or the street smarts of the old Silent Sixth council members out of South Baltimore, who hid behind a wall of self-consciousness. And he thought it was lovely that black people were finally winning power in a city that had denied them a decent education and jobs and fair play for so long.

But he goes to his grave today as the great cautionary tale of his era, broke and unemployable in his last years and dead at 63 after a long struggle with cancer: So much braininess, gone to waste. He is a tragedy wrapped in a hectic, sweaty, half-realized enigma. Though he had the smarts of anybody in government and helped lead the charge during the city's first modern renaissance, he also had the wayward heart of a kid with a little larceny in his soul who imagined nobody in charge would notice.

We should remember him in better times. We should connect him to the seat-of-the-pants energy and high hopes he brought to his work, and his sense of the grand gesture. We should recall the happy instincts behind the world's biggest birthday cake (if not its forlorn waste), and a big bowl of popcorn perched atop his head (if not the political defeat it signaled) and all those City Hall days and nights throwing barbs with the likes of Schaefer and Hyman Pressman and Emerson Julian and Eddie Fenton, too.

Remember Fenton? He was the radio reporter who'd camp out in Orlinsky's office with his feet on the council president's desk and a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand. And then, Monday nights at weekly council meetings when the hour would grow late, it was Fenton who'd bellow across the room at Orlinsky, "Fuhcrissake's sake, Wally, let's get this over with, kickoff's at 9 o'clock."

It was like that when Orlinsky ran the council, with everybody going at each other on Monday nights, hollering and threatening and cracking wise, and then going out for a beer afterward.

A treasured memory: Orlinsky railing at the council one Monday night for failure to do their homework at committee meetings, and Dr. Emerson Julian, the West Baltimore councilman, leaping to Wally's desk to put his face as close as he could to Orlinsky's.

"You ever accuse me again," Julian said, "and I'll drag you down by your hind legs in front of everybody. I don't care. Don't talk about me like that in public."

"You?" Orlinsky said. "You thought I was talking about you?"

"You weren't?" said Julian.

"No."

"Oh. In that case," announced Julian, "I have nothing more to say."

"Then move it," Eddie Fenton hollered again from the press table. "Kickoff's coming."

In those days, almost everybody vented. When Wally and Schaefer and Pressman butted heads at Wednesday Board of Estimates meetings, they could have charged admission.

Poor Wally. He wanted to save the world, and he couldn't save himself. He was the No. 2 man in a city where the only one who counts is the No. 1 person. His frustrations grew branch frustrations. He had the best brains at City Hall, with absolutely no way to translate it to action. He had a father who was a famous scholar, and a brother making a bundle with a newspaper in Columbia, and here was Wally, chafing like crazy to make his own mark.

He figured Schaefer would never leave City Hall. So Wally decided, what the hell, he'd run for governor. He didn't have the money, and thus didn't have a prayer. And then came the night, maybe a week before the election, when all the candidates debated on television and, afterward, went for a bite at John Unitas' old place on York Road.

What lingers is the contrast: two Democratic candidates who were certain their political lives were over, and their reactions to it. Orlinsky, ravenous for food, trying to get somebody's attention, and whooping it up with a big bowl of popcorn atop his head. And the other guy, forlorn as could be, glumly staring into his drink like a man at the end of his rope.

The other guy was Harry Hughes, who was about to stun Maryland (and himself) and become governor.

No one completes a life without regrets, but Orlinsky's were the size of mountains. He is our epic in lost potential. But he had the grandest intentions, and the biggest plans, until he reached beneath a table two decades ago and found an envelope with cash waiting. He paid for it. He paid behind bars, and then he paid with community service - Wally Appleseed, planting 6 million trees around the state - and then he paid when he sent out 2,000 job resumes and couldn't find anybody to take a chance on him. He wound up hawking scorecards at Oriole Park.

He was the man who might have been. He was the guy with so much intelligence, and so much heart, who never outlived his old newspaper headlines. He didn't ask anybody to forget, only to forgive. And he left us wondering if we ever would.

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