Sage adviser, key figure in city's growth

He left his mark on downtown Baltimore and on schools statewide

Walter Sondheim Jr. -- 1908 - 2007

February 16, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Through six decades, they called upon Walter Sondheim Jr. When Baltimore mayors, Maryland governors and other civic leaders needed sage advice, inevitably they sought it from a man widely admired for integrity and uncommon warmth and graciousness.

Mr. Sondheim died at 10 a.m. yesterday of pneumonia at Mercy Medical Center. He was 98, and until last week he worked every day at his office at the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Mr. Sondheim had a gift for nudging people toward grand accomplishments, often to the surpassing benefit of Baltimore and the state beyond. He earned his livelihood as a department store executive, but his legacy can be found in sweeping civic movements.

FOR THE RECORD - In the obituary last Friday of Walter Sondheim Jr., The Sun incorrectly reported that his sister-in-law was a former member of the British Parliament. In fact, Shirley Williams continues to serve in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament.
The Sun regrets the error.

As president of the Baltimore school board in 1954, Mr. Sondheim insisted - though other cities stalled - on the speedy desegregation of Baltimore schools after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. As a leader of the city's downtown development agency, he coaxed his colleagues into carefully controlled planning of the Inner Harbor. He headed the state panel that promoted regular testing of students. He disdained anything but the highest ethical standards in business and government.

"It's hard to imagine God having created a better person than Walter Sondheim," said Robert C. Embry Jr., the city's former housing commissioner and now president of the Abell Foundation.

Accolades poured in from the many leaders Mr. Sondheim counseled throughout the decades.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff, said Mr. Sondheim "wasn't shy about reaching out" to him with advice when Mr. O'Malley was mayor.

"If there was one enduring quality about Walter Sondheim, it was he had an unrelenting optimism about human nature," Mr. O'Malley said last night.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said, "Whether it was integration of the city schools or the redevelopment of Baltimore, he was certainly well ahead of his time."

William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and mayor who worked closely with Mr. Sondheim on many civic improvement efforts, called his death "a tremendous loss," describing Mr. Sondheim as one of the smartest and kindest men he knew.

"Integrity. I've never known a man with so much integrity in my life," Mr. Schaefer said. "He would not sanction anything that was not right."

During nearly a century of life, Mr. Sondheim crossed paths with many celebrated personages of his day. His favorite portrait of his late wife, Janet, was taken by the famed photographer Dorothea Lange. His children were delivered by Dr. Alan Guttmacher, a Johns Hopkins obstetrician-gynecologist who was one of the pioneers in the field of reproductive health. His brother-in-law was Richard Neustadt, a Harvard political scientist and the founder of the university's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Linked to history

His life was also intimately entwined with the history of Baltimore. He knew H.L. Mencken, who was a friend of Mr. Sondheim's father. His parents were married a week before the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which destroyed much of the downtown business district.

A droll and charming raconteur, Mr. Sondheim would recount for friends that when his parents returned from their honeymoon to the still-smoking Baltimore, his father told his mother that the fire of their love had engulfed the city.

But beyond the stories was a remarkable record of achievement in reshaping the city. Mr. Schaefer said the Science Center, Harborplace and Charles Center - among other projects - are "all monuments to Walter."

Through it all, Mr. Sondheim was self-effacing, often protesting his aversion to the spotlight.

"I'm not sure how I've gotten involved in the variety of things referred to here today," he said in 1975 when the Advertising Club of Baltimore gave him its Man of the Year Award. "One factor, of course, is just being around for so many years. My good, long-suffering, strangely faithful wife is clear about the fact that I'm just weak-kneed and haven't the courage to say `no.'

"Personally, I lean to the theory, expressed by a friend of mine, that there are some jobs only a damned fool will do, and if you're one, you have an obligation to accept such an assignment when it's offered to you."

People who knew Mr. Sondheim dismissed such talk.

He was a man of great affability who, until the end, delighted in juicy gossip and laughter.

"Everybody wanted him at their parties," Mr. Cardin said. "You don't get many people in their late 90s that everybody wants to be around. He was one of a kind."

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a longtime close friend, said he was thinking back yesterday to something Mr. Sondheim told him 20 years ago.

"He said, `Freeman , live life seriously, but don't take it seriously. You do your best, and then you laugh,' and that was Walter," Mr. Hrabowski said.

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