A Man For All Causes

Leader: Robert C. Embry Jr. finds dealing with urban issues fully as fascinating as when he returned to the city 40 years ago from Harvard.

February 22, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

THE CITY SCHOOLS were in crisis. The usual poohbahs - mayor, governor, superintendents, senators, delegates - were meeting. A news conference was called to announce the solution. And there, in his usual place on the edge of the spotlight, was this Zelig-like figure of Baltimore leadership - Bob Embry.

Mayors and governors and superintendents and crises have come and gone. The constant has been the slightly dour face of Robert C. Embry Jr. Though he smiles easily, many see only those downturned eyebrows and lips, an expression of seriousness or disapproval, perhaps both.

Embry's face has appeared in a lot of places over the past four decades in Baltimore. For more than 15 years, he has headed the Abell Foundation, which agreed this month to lend the school system $8 million to help it out of its cash flow crisis.

Life could have worked out differently for Embry. He could have been mayor. He could have been a U.S. Cabinet secretary. He could have been a CIA operative.

Or he could have been an ambassador. That was the career track of most of his classmates at Harvard in the early 1960s when Embry was getting a master's degree in foreign affairs and a law degree.

"Most people were going into the foreign service," Embry says. "But I was interested in the problems of cities. So I decided to come back to Baltimore and run for public office."

Baltimore was home. That was where he had graduated from City College in 1955. He went to the only college he applied to - Williams in Massachusetts.

There, Embry was recruited by the CIA and went into the Marines as a result. "That was the standard cover for all CIA people then," he says. "The Marines or the Army." But after a few months he decided that wasn't for him. His Marine hitch was converted to the Reserve, and he went on to Harvard.

Embry studied Islamic history. He thinks it was because of romantic visions implanted by the 1939 film Beau Geste about the adventures in the French Foreign Legion. But instead of the sands of the Sahara, the streets of Baltimore beckoned.

Embry ran for City Council in 1967. He was age 29, part of a new generation of city political leaders, when he took his seat representing Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District.

Not long after that, Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III tapped Embry to be the city housing commissioner.

"It was a tough decision for him," D'Alesandro says. "He was newly elected and he was afraid a lot of people would think he wasn't fulfilling his commitment. But he was a godsend, an absolute brilliant public servant. He was dedicated to the city, and he had an ability to comprehend the problems facing the city immediately."

When D'Alesandro decided not to run for a second term in 1971, Embry toyed with running for mayor. He decided against it, clearing the way for the earnest, if uncharismatic, president of the City Council to win the office. That man's name was William Donald Schaefer. Embry stayed on as Schaefer's housing commissioner.

This was a time of great problems and exciting solutions, of $1 houses and downtown redevelopment, of the types of things that put Baltimore on the map as the Renaissance city.

Today, Embry can look out at the stunning view from his 23rd floor office on South Calvert Street and see many of the results, flourishing neighborhoods like Otterbein and Federal Hill where houses were deteriorating and prices declining before he helped begin their redevelopment. The view is dominated by the Inner Harbor and Harborplace, the anchor of all that came after.

"I was up in Boston visiting Quincy Market with Jim Rouse," Embry recalls of a time in the 1970s. "And I said, `Why don't you build one of these on the harbor in Baltimore?'"

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, Embry was almost named to his Cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, the job went to Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African-American woman to hold a Cabinet post. Embry became an assistant secretary, trying to bring the ideas that he used in Baltimore to other urban areas.

After Carter's defeat in 1980, Embry joined his City College classmate - and fellow HUD administrator - David Cordish, in a development business specializing in the types of urban shopping areas that had worked in Baltimore.

Though he was making the type of money Harvard law graduates are supposed to make, the work did not satisfy him. By 1985, Embry was back in the public arena, named president of the Baltimore school board. He, of course, had plans - for character education, for contracts with parents to monitor homework and limit television.

And he had ambitions. Now, maybe, he could get back to his political career with a run for mayor in 1987. He resigned from the school board in 1986 to consider a campaign.

As with the HUD Cabinet post, race played a part in his fate. Baltimore was on the verge of electing its first black mayor, choosing between Kurt L. Schmoke and Clarence H. Du Burns.

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