The Sondheim era

February 16, 2007

On the day Walter Sondheim Jr. was born - a rainy summer Saturday - Hochschild, Kohn & Co. was holding a half-day sale, with tan Milanese silk gloves (12-button length) marked down from $1.25 to 79 cents. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad laid off 2,500 workers at its Mount Clare shops. The Sun editorial page complained that the motto of city agencies seemed to be, "Never do today that which can be delayed until tomorrow," yet it also urged the suburbs of Highlandtown and Canton to agree to annexation by Baltimore in order to enjoy the benefits of the city's cheap water and good schools.

The next day's edition noted with pride that Baltimore's white population had fewer illiterates than that of any other U.S. city, yet 25.8 percent of the black population was unschooled, at a time when there were nearly 80,000 African-Americans here, the second-highest black population after Washington.

That was back in 1908, and it's easy to see, with the hindsight of a near-century, that the city Mr. Sondheim would serve with such dedication and integrity and wry good humor was already in the throes of the issues and trends that would occupy the greater part of his life. Among these were economic hardship, urban development, slow-moving public agencies - but it's that telling comparison of the levels of black and white schooling, which was buried deep in the paper, that most stands out today.

Mr. Sondheim, who died yesterday, ushered in fundamental alterations in the city's schools, and then, more than three decades later, did the same for the state. He was a member of the school board that voted to integrate Polytechnic Institute in 1952, and was its president two years later when Baltimore became the first school district in the nation to do away with segregation after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the 1980s, what everyone knew as the Sondheim Commission mapped out Maryland's system of school assessment tests. Mr. Sondheim then served as president of the state school board, stepping down only as he approached his 95th birthday.

He said he regretted the white flight let loose by desegregation, but he regretted segregation more. Characteristically, he always maintained it required no particular courage to decide to obey a Supreme Court order, yet somehow the rest of segregated America took years to follow Baltimore's lead.

His other civic roles found Mr. Sondheim leading Baltimore's first big effort at urban renewal - the Charles Center project, which, whatever its failings, showed that a big vision was still possible - and then clearing the way for the spectacular revitalization of the Inner Harbor. In his 20s, he worked with the Urban League, and as recently as last month he was heading a local group hoping to buy this newspaper, because he believed that Baltimore needs its own voice.

He witnessed all the decades of the city's decline (Hochschild Kohn, where both he and his father were executives, was sold off and then went out of business in the 1980s), and he understood that there were powerful currents at work in American society. He correspondingly set his sights at midrange. "If you lie awake at night, you can despair," he told a Sun reporter in 1993. "In the back of our heads we know that the social issues of the great disparity in wealth, and racism, these are things we have to do something about. But we don't have in our hands the means to deal with them.

"So if you can't change the root causes, you begin to see what you can do to tackle the issues on a smaller basis. Sometimes you are treating the results instead of the causes, but these things cry out for attention. We hope that in a way these will at least contribute to solving the larger problem."

Everybody who dealt with him liked Walter Sondheim. He wasn't a hard-driving executive, but a modest man who helped make the machinery work even as he pointed it toward positive ends. He called himself a "damned fool," but dying was the only foolish thing he ever did.

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