Friends recall a man of wit, diligence and integrity


William Sondheim Jr. 1908-2007

February 16, 2007|By Eric Siegel, Michael Dresser and Liz Bowie

When Walter Sondheim Jr. chaired the Center City-Inner Harbor Development Corp. in the 1970s and 1980s, he often received unsolicited gifts from developers who hoped to win business contracts with the city.

Back those presents would immediately go. Inappropriate, Mr. Sondheim said.

Except once, according to David Gillece, a former city economic development officer. That time, Mr. Sondheim told Mr. Gillece, the gift was a particularly impressive coffee-table book on architecture. Mr. Sondheim confessed he couldn't resist thumbing through the book before sending it back.

"Walter would religiously return all those gifts," Mr. Gillece said, but always, characteristically, with a gracious note explaining that as a quasi-public servant, he couldn't accept such gratuities.

Mr. Sondheim, the civic leader who died yesterday at the age of 98, was remembered yesterday by those who knew him not only for his accomplishments in education and urban development - grand though they were - but also as a man of rare character. Friends and admirers recalled him as a man of wit, warmth and wisdom whose integrity was without question and passion for the public good unsurpassed.

Yet, almost to a person, those who knew him were struck by his humility.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, remembered Mr. Sondheim's interactions with students in the school's Sondheim Scholars program, a public policy effort endowed by several of Mr. Sondheim's many friends.

"He talked with them as though they were peers," said Mr. Hrabowski, who knew Mr. Sondheim for 20 years. "He had this capacity to make young people and not-so-young people comfortable."

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Arts Museum, played off Mr. Sondheim's sense of whimsy when the two co-hosted a fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"He was such a great sport. I got him to wear a shocking pink wig. We auctioned off the moments of his indignity," said Ms. Hoffberger, whose museum is one of the many nonprofits on which Mr. Sondheim served as a board member.

Donald C. Fry - president and chief executive of the Greater Baltimore Committee, where Mr. Sondheim worked as a senior adviser until he was hospitalized last week - remembered a time Mr. Sondheim came into his office with a nearly final draft of a 45-page report the GBC was about to issue on city management.

A stickler for good writing and grammar, Mr. Sondheim told Mr. Fry that he had found a couple of errors. When Mr. Fry asked where they were, Mr. Sondheim handed him a page from a 1924 grammar book and playfully told him to find them himself. "He had a great wit about him, a great sense of humor," Mr. Fry said.

He also downplayed his contributions, Mr. Fry said. "He would say that he was the only one left to give credit to. We knew it wasn't true but he tried to play it that way," said Mr. Fry.

Indeed, Mr. Sondheim used his age as the subject of many of his self-effacing comments - even as his acuity in his advanced years was a continual source of amazement to those who knew him.

"I'm not in the business of buying green bananas anymore," Mr. Sondheim would often say, a reference to the fact that he might not be around to see them ripen, according to Mark Wasserman, a top aide to William Donald Schaefer when he was the Baltimore mayor and later governor of Maryland.

Mr. Sondheim was as renowned for not exercising his body as he was for stimulating his mind.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Sondheim had a mix-up on a luncheon date with Mark Joseph, a former head of the Baltimore school board and now chairman of a real estate investment company. One of them went to the Center Club and the other to Windows.

"It was Abbott and Costello - his office looking for him, my office looking for him, him looking for me and vice-versa," Mr. Joseph wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "When we finally hooked up he was apologetic, but in fine spirits. He was delighted because he could tell his doctor that he'd followed orders and gotten some exercise."

Friends decades younger marveled at his ability to complete The Times of London crossword puzzle each week. The day after he was admitted to the hospital last week, he was doing a sudoku puzzle.

Sister Helen Amos - chair of the Mercy Medical Center board on which Mr. Sondheim served for 34 years - recalled an exhausting day-long presentation last year on plans for the center's expansion. At the end of the meeting, she said, Mr. Sondheim succinctly summed up not only his views but those of other members of the group.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the head of the Baltimore Development Corp. who has known Mr. Sondheim for 40 years, saw an example of his dedication when he arrived on a cold, damp day last year for a routine meeting of an Inner Harbor task force. It would have been an easy meeting to skip.

"Did you get a ride?" Mr. Brodie asked him.

"No," Mr. Sondheim replied, "I walked."

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