The one, the only

A documentary on William Donald Schaefer reminds Baltimoreans how much he has been of them, and how much he has done for them

March 29, 2009|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Special to The Sun

Citizen Schaefer.

Even with the Orwellian, William Randolph Hearst overtones, the title of Maryland Public Television's new documentary seems just right.

Yes, William Donald Schaefer was a councilman, a four-term mayor, a two-term governor and comptroller. But these were just titles. He never stopped seeing himself as Don Schaefer, homeowner, a Baltimorean like his father who planted flowers in the backyard, who swept the alleys and wanted garbage collected on time.

He thought the city could be greater than its citizens dared to hope, but he knew a greater city would be built from the alleys up.

When he saw efforts that made a Baltimore neighborhood brighter, he inducted the homeowner into what he called The Order of the Rose. Certificates suitable for framing were sent from City Hall.

I remember standing on the street with him one evening last summer after dinner and marveling to myself at what he had done with his life. It was laid out behind him, a new city skyline, built by a citizen who earned power and learned how to use it.

He knew he had to have partners everywhere - in these very office buildings and along the alleys and in the ball yards and community centers. People responded to him because they sensed his sometimes grumpy demands arose from his confidence in them.

It will be irresistible, I suppose, to define his "legacy" in terms of bricks and mortar. I think that will be missing the point. Perhaps the trick will be to see in the things he built the spirit that held it all together when he was in charge.

His own work ethic drove his agenda. There was TV footage of him working late into the night in City Hall. He knew, and his many lieutenants knew, that "optics" or "image" mattered and they worked on it with great skill.

It worked because, shy and awkward as he could be with people, he was a Barrymore at heart. Leadership in public life calls for props and backdrops and memorable lines.

Theater worked for him because, as well-staged as his public events were, they had him - the real deal - at the center. Mere PR would never have sustained his long productive career. There had to be steak with the sizzle.

Beneath the skyline he traced and then built were the ideas and efforts of people challenged to think creatively, to be daring, to see beyond blight - in a sense to be the new Baltimore they wanted.

Facets of his approach to leadership could easily be worked into something like the 10 habits of successful leaders. I laid out my own list in William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography. Trust your instincts. Value the talents of women - rare in his day. Set no priorities lest important "little" things get lost. Make everything a must. Believe in timing: Failure leaves a "residue" that makes the chore harder the next time.

The list might include some cautionary words. Don't overstay your welcome. Know when you've been around long enough. People will forgive your embarrassing lapses, but spare them that effort.

Have a family like other citizens. That's what it's all about, remember?

C. Fraser Smith, a former reporter and editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun, is a senior news analyst for WYPR-FM, a columnist for The Daily Record and the author of William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography.

'Citizen Schaefer'

9 p.m. Monday: Maryland Public Television profiles former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer.@baltimoresun.com

See a video clip from "Citizen Schaefer" and a gallery of photos of William Donald Schaefer

at /maryland

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