Sondheim's legacy of courage, progress

February 25, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

One of Maryland's most effective leaders in recent times was never elected to anything. He had many of the politician's tools, but he chose to use them outside the political arena.

Not that he escaped the role of policymaker - or wanted to. He had the good fortune to live in challenging times, the heart to oppose injustice and an opportunity to act against it.

Walter Sondheim Jr., who died Feb. 15 at the age of 98, recognized the critical moment of his life.

It came in 1954 after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the legally sanctioned masquerade of "separate but equal" public facilities. The city school board Mr. Sondheim then served as president voted to open Baltimore public schools to all races with so little discussion that a reporter, late for the momentous action, had to plead for a re-enactment. The always gracious Mr. Sondheim complied.

He had known anti-Jewish bigotry, so there was something personal in his leadership. At the same time, he said he was simply obeying the law. Hadn't the U.S. Supreme Court spoken on the issue? Weren't we all obliged to obey a ruling from the nation's highest court?

When the state superintendent of schools objected, Mr. Sondheim declined to reconsider - and invited the man to come and "unscramble the eggs." Baltimore became one of the first school systems in the nation to act in this decisive way. After the vote, Mr. Sondheim paid a visit to Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., then in Bon Secours hospital. What did the mayor of Baltimore think of the school board's action?

"Walter," Mr. D'Alesandro said, according to Mr. Sondheim, "I don't know if what you did was right, but the priests here say it was right, so I guess it was right." The mayor's son, "Young Tommy," says his father was aware of everything that happened in his city. He may not have wanted to be leading the city in compliance with the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, but he was not acting to stop compliance, as many other elected officials did.

So Walter Sondheim served as the out-front man on one of the most important issues in the nation's history. With that decision alone, he earned a place in the history of his community. It took courage - and yet, public opposition was less violent than some had feared.

For the next half-century of his life, Mr. Sondheim continued to dispatch what he saw as his responsibilities to the common good. He was the ultimate city father, what some used to call "an old head," who found many ways to keep the city running smoothly.

He made the blessing of a long life and undiminished powers into a gift for his neighbors. He was retiring, but he never retired. He out-served generations of men and women who were smart enough to insist upon his counsel.

His reputation for integrity and selfless devotion to his city and state ennobled him and those he served. He was, to be sure, a public official occasionally. He sat on boards and commissions. He worked on every conceivable public policy issue in the area of public education and physical renewal in Baltimore.

He soothed and encouraged those who had been elected, remonstrating with them when he thought it was necessary. He was a comfort to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who became Baltimore's first elected black mayor. When the new mayor and former mayor William Donald Schaefer did not communicate well, Mr. Sondheim became the bridge.

He was a man who enjoyed the intermediary's role. He handled it with skill, imparting enough to satisfy a reporter's need for understanding and inside information - without giving away too much. If one side or the other in a dispute was obviously unreasonable, Mr. Sondheim didn't spin it. He would try to explain it, but not deny it.

There is much concern in media and public affairs today with what is called a public official's "legacy," as if one could control it beyond simply doing one's job and allowing that effort to speak for itself.

Walter Sondheim's record speaks eloquently.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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