Schaefer moves, reluctantly

Former governor settles in at Charlestown

April 26, 2008|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,Sun reporter

A bunch of guys loaded the contents of William Donald Schaefer's Pasadena townhouse into a truck the other day while he lunched, unsuspecting, at Petit Louis in Roland Park.

The former mayor, governor and comptroller was moving, only he didn't know it.

A longtime aide with power of attorney had been pushing for him to move to Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville for a long time. And the famously cantankerous politician had been pushing right back.

"I wasn't ready to move," Schaefer, 86, said yesterday, recalling how the aide initially sent movers to his house three weeks ago, not long after a fall at home required a trip to the emergency room and stitches. Schaefer was home when the first movers arrived and sent them packing.

"I said, `I'm not ready yet. Get out. Scram.'"

The push and pull between an elderly person who wants to live independently and relatives and friends who fear he can no longer do so is nothing unusual. So many families have struggled over that issue that it's become a cliche - one voiced in Schaefer's last run for office.

Janet S. Owens, the former Anne Arundel County executive, said when she told Schaefer she would challenge him in the Democratic primary for comptroller, it was like having to tell "Grandpa" it was time to give up the car keys.

"The lifestyle transition is always difficult when you realize other people are sort of telling you you have to do something," said Alexis Abramson, who has a doctoral degree in gerontology and appears on Retirement Living TV, which was created by Charlestown's developer. "It's difficult because you feel somewhat disempowered, that you're not the decision-maker.

"That loss of control and that loss of power, no matter whether you're a janitor or a senator or a governor or a CEO, you were in control of your own life and when that slips away from you ... it's just an uncomfortable feeling," Abramson said.

Schaefer is a lifelong bachelor who, people used to say, was married to the city of Baltimore. It was a long and mostly happy marriage, blessed by twin stadiums and the rebirth of the Inner Harbor. But 50 years in public life came to an end after a series of inflammatory comments. When voters cast him out in 2006, he lost not just his job, but, in a sense, his spouse.

Since then, many of his longtime friends and associates have worried that the political widower was too frail - he's shaky on his feet - and too isolated to stay in his townhouse. Lainy LeBow-Sachs, an aide since Schaefer's City Hall days, started pushing for Charlestown. He resisted, but after that early March fall, LeBow-Sachs decided to follow her old boss' advice: "Do It Now!" She called the movers, only to have Schaefer send them away.

So LeBow-Sachs made sure Schaefer would be out of the house Thursday when she tried again. She took him to lunch and afterward got in the Lincoln with Schaefer and his driver, whom LeBow-Sachs had clued in to the plan.

"Poor Ross," said LeBow-Sachs of the driver. "He was sweating and shaking. I told [Schaefer] what he was doing, and he said, `No, no, no.'"

Schaefer reacted angrily.

"She tricked me," he said. "Sure, I was mad. How would you like to come home and there was nothing but bare walls?"

But by yesterday afternoon, when he agreed to be interviewed in his new apartment, Schaefer said he was resigned to the decision, even if he hadn't yet jumped into the Charlestown social swirl. He was still in his blue-and-white striped pajamas at 4 p.m., though he said he intended to get dressed and go downstairs for dinner.

"I walked in, and it was home," he said, surrounded by furniture and knickknacks - he's big on lighthouses - that were in place for his arrival. "I thought I'd hate it. That was a long time ago."

John Erickson, CEO of the retirement chain that includes Charlestown, was there to greet Schaefer at his sixth-floor apartment, which has a view of the Baltimore skyline. When Schaefer had dinner Thursday night at Charlestown's Atrium restaurant, nearly 100 residents stood and applauded, said Erickson spokesman Mel Tansill.

If Schaefer seems at peace with the decision, the same cannot be said for all of his friends and associates. Schaefer's will-he, won't-he move has been the subject of political gossip for months, and this week's surprise resolution did not sit well with some.

"Her subterfuge has served to make him look incompetent and incapable of making decisions for himself," said former spokesman Mike Golden, referring to LeBow-Sachs. "I think it's highly insulting. It's clearly something he did not want to do."

Several others, however, expressed relief.

"I think Don needs to be with people," said former Gov. Marvin Mandel. "And this will give him the opportunity."

Said Nelson Sabatini, Schaefer's longtime friend and former health secretary: "I knew he was moving, wasn't moving, was moving, wasn't moving." Perhaps Schaefer put up a fight, Sabatini suggested, because he likes to fight.

"One of the beautiful things about Schaefer is he was a contrarian, and he was at his best when he was disagreeing with someone," said Sabatini, who predicted the move will be a good one. "It will be filled with people who will line up every day to come and pay respects to him. So he will have an audience."

Kevin Eckert, dean of the Erickson School of Aging, Management and Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the elderly can lead fuller lives in that type of setting.

"There really are opportunities for expansion and growth, making new friends, expanding one's social network," he said. "He might become the mayor of Charlestown."

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

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