The very model of a modern civic leader

A service honors Walter Sondheim Jr., who helped guide and shape the city, state

March 18, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Some met him as a young department store executive. Others knew him as the man who integrated city schools or shaped the renaissance of the Inner Harbor. He was the mentor of a few in his later years, when, well past 90, he still took time to encourage college students to devote themselves to the community.

More than 400 people gathered yesterday to salute Walter Sondheim Jr., the Baltimore civic leader who died last month at 98.

In a ceremony at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, friends and colleagues described Sondheim as a great citizen. They lauded the man who worked, until a week before his death, for the civic good.

FOR THE RECORD - A March 18 story about a memorial service for civic leader Walter Sondheim Jr. incorrectly stated his place of residence. He lived at HarborView.

Then, in a nod to his sense of humor and humility, they listened to his favorite song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," from the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance.

"He was the kindest, sweetest and most humble man that any of us will ever know," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a friend of Sondheim's for more than two decades.

Among the people who came to pay their respects were Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who met Sondheim when she first ran for the Baltimore City Council in the 1970s, and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who worked closely with Sondheim to revitalize the Inner Harbor.

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said that she first met Sondheim as a teenager when she worked at Hochschild Kohn department store, where he was an executive.

She was a student at Western High School when Sondheim, as president of the Baltimore school board, hastened the desegregation of city schools in 1954.

Most recently, he worked with her as president of the state school board.

"He was a national treasure, not just a Maryland treasure," Grasmick said before the memorial service. "The programs and the actions he took were models for the nation."

Sondheim served on 106 boards and commissions but dodged compliments with characteristic humility, said Robert Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation.

"Walter would have looked at today with a great deal of skepticism," Embry said.

Sense of justice

Sondheim, who died of pneumonia Feb. 15, spent his last days at Mercy Medical Center, where he had served on the board of trustees for 34 years.

A native of Baltimore, he developed a sense of social justice at a young age. He drew parallels between discrimination that he experienced as a Jew and the bigotry directed at black people, Hrabowski said.

At Hochschild Kohn, he was responsible for promoting the first black person from the service staff to the sales floor, said Elizabeth Moser, the daughter of one of the department store's leaders.

A great believer in cities, he championed the revitalization of the Inner Harbor.

"When we look at both his professional career and what he did as a citizen, what he did was manage transition," Mikulski said.

Throughout his career, Sondheim was an ardent supporter of young people. He served as a mentor to students in the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars program at UMBC. Alicia Wilson and Aaron Merki, two graduates of that program who now attend the University of Maryland's law school, spoke of meeting him for monthly lunches.

"His strength, his humility and his vision helped me to pursue a path of service," Wilson said.

Merki said that Sondheim encouraged them to become civic leaders.

"He subtly made it known that he would love us to stay in Baltimore and be engaged in the community," he said.

Word games

Many who attended the memorial service, organized by Sondheim's daughter, Ellen S. Dankert, spoke of his sense of humor.

When people asked him how he managed to live so long, he would explain that he hadn't exercised regularly since college and that he hadn't eaten green vegetables for years, said Sanford J. Ungar, the president of Goucher College.

A longtime friend, Carola Eisenberg, was unable to attend the memorial service because of the icy weather, but her son, Alan Gutmacher, read remarks that she had written.

Sondheim was a champ at crossword puzzles and "ate oysters by the bushel," Eisenberg wrote.

"Walter was modest," she wrote. "Except for Scrabble, when he beat us to a crisp."

John W. Sondheim spoke of his parents' long and devoted marriage. His mother, the former Janet Blum, would refer to the many trophies and platters that his father received as "salami plates."

Mrs. Sondheim died in 1992.

Sondheim continued fixing watches and clocks through the last year of his life and was fascinated by astronomy, his son said. He kept a telescope in his Harbor East apartment and would use it to watch the fireworks over the harbor that he helped revitalize, his son said.

Shunning credit

At a reception after the ceremony, Gutmacher said that when he is faced with a difficult decision, he wonders what Sondheim would have done.

"Walter was the living embodiment [of the idea] that you could get so much done if you don't worry about getting your name on it," he said. "The city is going to be a very different place without him."

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