Robert T. Shaffer Jr., 69, union official

August 16, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Robert Thomas Shaffer Jr., a high school football standout who rose swiftly through the ranks of the local ironworkers union, was a tough opponent for the contractors facing off against him in the bargaining room, where he'd hold out for as long as it took to get a good deal for his men.

But he was also tough on his workers - a different kind of tough. Years later, many of them gratefully recalled how Mr. Shaffer used to track them down in a bar, pull them off the stool, and take them to a job so they'd have some money to take home to their family.

"If you were a guy down on your luck, he'd pull you up by your bootstraps," said his son Robert Thomas Shaffer III, who heard the stories when he worked briefly as an ironworker himself. "He was a big supporter of working people."

Mr. Shaffer died Thursday of rheumatoid arthritis at St. Joseph's Hospital. The Hydes resident was 69 years old.

Born in West Virginia, Mr. Shaffer moved with his family to the Baltimore area two years later. As a student Polytechnic Institute, he excelled in baseball, track and field, and football. He was co-captain of the school's undefeated 1953 football team, received all-Prep honors and was offered football scholarships by several colleges.

But Mr. Shaffer turned down the offers, reluctant to give up his courtship of his high school sweetheart, Marie MacDonnell. They were married in 1956, by which point Mr. Shaffer was well into a successful career as an ironworker.

In 1963, at age 28, he was elected president of the 4,000-member Local 16 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers, a position typically reserved for much more veteran workers. Two years later, he was elected business manager.

His 12 years in elected office came at a busy time for the union, which was hard at work on many of the skyscrapers being built in downtown Baltimore. In drawn-out negotiations with contractors, Mr. Shaffer acquired a reputation as a vigorous defender of his local's interests, said his son, a Baltimore lawyer who lives in Hydes.

But Mr. Shaffer, who became administrator of the local's health and welfare plan in 1975, was admired equally in the union for his attempts to get his workers to help themselves. One worker later told Mr. Shaffer's son that his father had "saved my life" by getting him back to work and earning money.

All the while, Mr. Shaffer remained a force on the gridiron, as well. For years after high school, he played semiprofessional football, first for Arcadia, a powerhouse team that traveled widely, and later for Harford County's Big Red.

Mr. Shaffer spoke little of his football exploits, but did try to instill his love of competition in his children, encouraging them to play sports and coaching their teams even though they weren't particularly athletic, said his son.

The Shaffer children were exposed to the construction business as well. In 1972, Mr. Shaffer built the family a large house in Hydes to replace a smaller one in Loch Raven, and Mr. Shaffer made sure the children helped out by hammering nails and painting. Later, he urged his son Robert to work with Local 16.

"He wanted me to get a taste of what it was like working with my hands," his son said.

The younger Mr. Shaffer had plenty of contacts with his father's fellow ironworkers long before he joined them on the top of building skeletons. When he was young, he said, his father brought him and his siblings to at least a dozen funerals of workers who had died, often in accidents on the job.

"We didn't know them, but he wanted us to be there," his son said. "He was always there at their death, and when people needed him. That's how he was."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on Long Green Pike in Hydes.

Surviving, in addition to his wife and son, are another son, John Shaffer of Baltimore; four daughters, Theresa Shaffer of Ruxton, Karen Shaffer of Bel Air, and Barbara Shaffer-Shnock and Carol Shaffer, both of Jacksonville, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.

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