The Harbor's First Father

Former Mayor And Governor Theodore R. Mckeldin's Contributions Are Often Overlooked

August 12, 2009|By William J. Thompson

This week marks 35 years since the death of Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, twice mayor of Baltimore and two-term governor of Maryland. The passage of three-and-a-half decades - and more than 40 years since he last held elective office - have, unfortunately, obscured his considerable achievements.

McKeldin, who served as mayor from 1943 to 1947, governor from 1951 to 1959, then again as mayor from 1963 to 1967, was a Republican in a state which then - as now - elected few from the GOP to statewide office. He was the only Republican governor in Maryland history to be re-elected, and the last Republican elected mayor of Baltimore.

Theodore McKeldin's achievements were considerable. He was a staunch advocate for civil rights: He supported laws aimed at ending discrimination for African-Americans and appointed blacks to positions in his administrations. Mr. McKeldin was also an unwavering supporter of Jewish causes, especially the State of Israel. He opposed capital punishment on moral grounds but refused to commute several death sentences while governor; decisions he later regretted.

There were other accomplishments. He initiated plans as mayor for an international airport - now BWI-Marshall, and unveiled a 12-year road-building program as governor (a portion of the Baltimore Beltway near Reisterstown Road now bears his name). Mr. McKeldin undertook charter revision as mayor, and his Commission on Administrative Organization of the State while governor made sweeping reforms.

Generations of Marylanders remember McKeldin the campaigner and speechmaker. He loved to campaign - anywhere, anytime, before any group. As an orator, Mr. McKeldin had few peers, using lofty rhetoric at one event, down-home humor at the next; his favorite venues were churches and synagogues, befitting one who in his youth considered the ministry.

But perhaps one of Mr. McKeldin's greatest legacies, so often overlooked, was his early and persistent support of Inner Harbor revitalization. As early as his first term as mayor, Mr. McKeldin spoke out about the deplorable condition of the wharves in the Inner Harbor and suggested nonindustrial uses for the area.

At his second mayoral inaugural in 1963, Mr. McKeldin said: "Envision with me ... a new Inner Harbor area, where the imagination of man can take advantage of a rare gift of nature to produce an enthralling panorama of office buildings, parks, high-rise apartments and marinas. In this, we have a very special opportunity, for few other cities in the world have been blessed, as has ours, with such a potentially beautiful harbor area within the very heart of downtown. ... Too visionary this? ... Too dreamlike? ... Certainly not."

During his final years in office, Mr. McKeldin moved to make the Inner Harbor renaissance a reality, working with local business, civic and political leaders, including James Rouse, the creator of Harborplace.

He appealed personally to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom the GOP mayor openly supported in the 1964 presidential election - the McKeldin brand of Republican is nearly extinct today - for start-up funds; with LBJ asking, "How much [money] do you need, Mayor?" and having Housing and Urban Development secretary Robert Weaver call McKeldin personally, telling him the money was on the way.

However, McKeldin's role in the Inner Harbor's redevelopment has been allowed to be forgotten by history. The soon-to-be dedicated "larger than life," 7-foot-2 statue of William Donald Schaefer at the Inner Harbor reflects a civic shortsightedness. In the harbor will stand a prominent statue of one mayor, while in another remains a shabby, nearly 30-year-old fountain in a nearby square named for Mr. McKeldin - its only designation being a plaque in the sidewalk which more people walk on than look at.

The city is considering razing even that monument; if that happens, nothing will be left to honor him.

Near the end of his long, productive political career, Mr. McKeldin said: "People won't remember me because I kept the tax rate up or down. People don't remember that a mayor kept the tax rate at $4.52. They'll ask, 'What did he do?' What Mr. McKeldin did do was envision and move toward reality a revitalized Inner Harbor, once dilapidated and run-down, now majestic and a model for cities around the world.

There must be a fitting tribute in the Inner Harbor to a man who saw its enormous potential and took the first steps to bring it to fruition. Anything less would be an omission of history.

William J. Thompson is a history instructor at Stevenson University. He is writing a biography of Theodore R. McKeldin. His e-mail address is wthompson@ste venson.edu.

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