Pupil contest inspired by Schaefer

Fifth-graders must write about community project, comptroller as role model

He's been criticized for remarks

May 10, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland fifth-graders polishing their essays for a $500 writing contest might want to leave out the references to non-English speakers working at McDonald's, to state employees who are "little girls," or to an ex-governor who has a "rabbit brain."

The Maryland State Department of Education, in an effort to foster voluntarism, is promoting the contest that seeks ideas for projects that would improve school communities. The fifth-grader who proposes the best initiative will receive $500 from the Morgan Stanley Foundation, and his or her school will get $1,000 to implement the plan.

But because the contest is "inspired by the spirit and vision of William Donald Schaefer," the state comptroller and former Baltimore mayor and governor of Maryland, the entries must include a second component, according to rules distributed by the state.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported the age and residence of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. He is 82, and lives in Pasadena. The Sun regrets the error.

"Please include a brief (several paragraphs) statement on the following: Why you believe that William Donald Schaefer is an excellent role model for volunteerism and community service," the rules state. "This statement will require some research on the part of the student."

As a public servant for five decades and a towering figure in Maryland politics, Schaefer has amassed an impressive portfolio of accomplishments. He helped build Baltimore's Inner Harbor and a stadium for the Baltimore Orioles. He toiled as mayor to keep city streets clean and as governor to pull the state through a fiscal crisis.

But over the years, his famously sharp tongue has also provoked outrages. Last week, Schaefer drew the ire of Hispanics and other minority groups after a public tirade about the problems with non-English speakers serving him at a McDonald's restaurant near his Severna Park home.

"I don't want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us," Schaefer said during last week's Board of Public Works meeting. "Now I'm not going back to that McDonald's again, because I didn't like the fact that I couldn't get an order to them, what I wanted. Second of all, reading the bag that has every language on there except English, that's not right."

Pupils who participate in the contest, which has a deadline of Wednesday, could also uncover other famous Schaefer outbursts. During the Democratic primary campaign for comptroller in 2002, former Secretary of State John T. Willis ran advertisements pointing out that Schaefer sometimes refers to women as "little girls" and has called African-Americans "Afros."

His feud with former Gov. Parris N. Glendening descended to the point that Schaefer began referring to his gubernatorial successor as "rabbit brain."

"If you look at the career of William Donald Schaefer, all the way through, from mayor to governor to comptroller, there is far more good than the silly things or things that could be hurtful," said Darla Strouse, a State Education Department official who organized the writing contest. "We saw him and see him as a man who is concerned about bettering the community."

Schaefer is chairman of the Harvest for the Hungry Kids Helping Kids program, Strouse said, which collected 350,000 pounds of food through schools. Harvest for the Hungry and the Morgan Stanley Foundation are co-sponsors of the writing contest, she said, and no taxpayer money is being used.

Still, the contest is making some uncomfortable.

"It just doesn't feel right to have students writing about why one elected official, who may chose to run for re-election, is a great guy," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "I just don't think it's appropriate."

Schaefer was unavailable for comment, but his spokesman, Michael Golden, said the 83-year-old comptroller was worthy of the honor.

"One of the reasons he is a good role model is he always speaks honestly, whether you agree with him or not," Golden said. "I think it's a great character trait."

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