Exercising Hizzoner

Schaefer's Physical Therapist A Grandson Of The Ex-governor's High School Gym Teacher

July 24, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,laura.vozzella@baltsun.com.

William Donald Schaefer's legs were failing him, but his stubbornness was reliable as ever.

People were telling the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and comptroller to get physical therapy. He brushed them off with an old story, about how he'd hated being pushed in the gym as a kid at City College.

Gym teacher Philip Axman would order the young, height-fearing Schaefer up a rope.

"I'd be halfway up and say, 'I've got to get out of here,'" Schaefer, 87, recalled recently.

Axman would bark: "Get up there! Get up! Go!" Schaefer, terrified, would climb.

Schaefer reached great political heights after graduating from City in 1939. He also grew rather used to getting his own way. When doctors and aides urged him about a year ago to get help strengthening his legs, Mr. Do It Now said: maybe later.

He made a couple grudging visits to a clinic at Charlestown, the Catonsville retirement home where he lives. But he wouldn't go back. Nurse Patti Marchitto arranged a house call. But she said the "meek" therapist was no match for Patient Annoyed.

"Governor Schaefer is, first of all, very clever and very theatrical," Marchitto said. "You want to do something, like get him dressed. He'll jump in the bed. He'll outwit you somehow."

Schaefer stood his ground - and started losing his ability to walk. A long corridor stands between his sixth-floor apartment and the elevator. "He was completely done in, if not in a wheelchair, by the time he got to the elevator," Marchitto said.

Another therapist made a house call. This one managed to get Schaefer up, out of his chair and walking the hallway before he knew it. He had a way with Schaefer - and, perhaps, something else. Something genetic.

The therapist was the grandson of Schaefer's old gym teacher.

Philip Axman's family was aware that he'd taught somebody famous at City, but it wasn't Schaefer. It was Garry Moore, the future game show host then known as Garrison Morfit. Philip Axman even appeared in 1962 on I've Got A Secret. His secret: He'd flunked Moore for cutting gym.

But Philip Axman never mentioned teaching Schaefer. His grandson, Harry Axman, only learned that after a few visits with patient Schaefer.

"I found out that he graduated from City College in 1939," Harry Axman said. "I said, 'My grandfather, I'll bet, was your physical education teacher - Philip Axman.' Governor Schaefer said, 'He was a little tough guy. He made me climb the ropes.' He remembered him right away."

Marchitto was stunned.

"I just stood there, frozen," she said. "Imagine - what are we talking about, 70 years later? - the grandson of the P.E. teacher who never gave up on this body is working this body."

Schaefer and Harry Axman met at the apartment to share the story with me. Schaefer recalled the elder Axman and the business with the rope. "You didn't mess around with him. You stayed in line."

Then, deadpan, Schaefer told Harry Axman that he's not as handsome as his grandfather.

Harry Axman worked with Schaefer two to three times a week for three months. Schaefer, a shrewd deal-maker in office, did lots of bargaining. For more time between exercises. For political impressions - Axman does a mean Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton - between sets. Axman decided the best strategy was to be firm but fun.

"Both of us have a very dry and large sense of humor, and it was very friendly," said Axman, 52. "And after we got to the fun part of it, I was able to get him to work on some exercises. ... His fall frequency was much reduced and he was able to walk further distances."

Schaefer had a setback in May, when he got a pacemaker.

"He had lost some strength from being in the [hospital] bed," Marchitto said. "He has been doing much better. He is amazingly alert and witty."

He spends time reading books. (Several at once, including a biography of Winston Churchill and Stephen King's horror novel Cell.) He listens to records. (From Eddy Arnold to speeches by Churchill.) He has many visitors, including former Govs. Marvin Mandel and Bob Ehrlich.

But ask Schaefer how he spends his days, and he's all mock maudlin.

"I come out of the bedroom about once a day. Eat. Sleep. Eat some more. Sleep some more.

"Every day I exercise," he added, drumming his fingers on the arms of a chair. "I do this 20 times."

Axman, who was since left Charlestown for another job, has visited a few times. On Christmas, he came by to give his fellow Civil War buff some relic bullets and buttons he'd framed.

When Axman returned two weeks ago, Schaefer moved from the kitchen to the living room so they could sit down. Schaefer used a walker to get there, but Axman wasn't looking. Later, the therapist asked, "Did you walk from the kitchen yourself, or with your walker?"

If Schaefer's legs were again letting him down, his wit was not.

All he'd say was, "Yes."

Laura Vozzella's column appears Fridays. Her e-mail is laura.vozzella@baltsun.com.

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