Analysis: 'Shaky' Schaefer finds his way

A mayor who boosted Baltimore's confidence had to shore up his own along the way

April 18, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

William Donald Schaefer's biggest achievement was also his most unlikely: A man insecure enough to earn the nickname "Shaky" managed to restore the self-confidence of an entire city.

The former mayor, governor and comptroller, who died Monday at the age of 89, sweated every election of his 50-year career in office even the ones he won by wide margins. Doubts — about his humble roots, his lack of polish — tormented Schaefer, but also drove him in a way that served Baltimore.

"He would get into funks if he felt not enough was being done, and I guess in a way he saw that as a reflection of himself," said Mike Golden, who covered the mayor as a radio reporter and went on to work as his spokesman in Annapolis.

"But I think that's what made him so admirable. He wasn't willing to rest on his laurels. Any politician who accomplished a tenth of what he accomplished could retire happily, knowing, 'I did this.' He felt he could always do more and he felt like he owed it to people."

By all appearances, Baltimore had in Schaefer a supremely confident, even arrogant mayor. He was a showboater who twisted arms and bent rules to get a waterfront remade, a stadium and an aquarium built, and a down-on-its-luck downtown reborn as an international tourist attraction.

But behind the scenes, even Schaefer's most famous act of mayoral derring-do was cause for fretting.

On July 15, 1981, Schaefer made good on a promise to jump into the seal pool if the new aquarium did not open on time. Sporting a Gay Nineties swimsuit and a Buster Keaton deadpan, he turned a delayed public project into a charming stunt that brought the city worldwide attention.

But in the hours before he took the plunge, Schaefer despaired, fearing it would be a big, fat bellyflop.

"It was tense, very tense," longtime aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs told The Baltimore Sun in 2006, on the 25th anniversary of his swim. "He's walking around in the office, and he says, 'I look so ridiculous.' And he did. I'm trying not to laugh my head off. ... If I even moved a finger, he was yelling at me."

Schaefer's mood on the way over to the aquarium only darkened, as he was overcome by a feeling that LeBow-Sachs described this way: "If you decided to play a joke on somebody, and as you started to do it, you thought, 'Jeez, this might not be funny.'"

It didn't help that one of Schaefer's closest friends, Gene Raynor, thought it was an awful idea.

"You're the mayor and you want to run for governor, and you're going to look like a jackass," Raynor recalled warning Schaefer.

But Schaefer forced himself to go through with it.

"He jumped in the pool and he made Time magazine," Raynor said. "He said, 'Next time I need good political advice, I'll ask you and do the opposite.' "

Schaefer pushed himself into the seal pool and countless other stunts because he thought they would give his city a badly needed boost, said Matthew A. Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

"For him that must have been really, really hard. He was always worried about making a fool of himself in public," Crenson said. "Here he had to go and do this crazy thing. It must have been excruciating for him. And yet he carried it off.

"He was a very complicated person, I think much more complicated than he appeared to the outside world. He started off as such a diffident politician that [West Baltimore political boss] Irv Kovens nicknamed him "Shaky." He never thought he was going to win. The other side was this fiercely confident advocate for Baltimore."

Crenson credits Schaefer with restoring the city's "sense of worth and confidence" — and creating a public image that was up to that task.

"He found a public persona that was different from his private self," Crenson said. "He became Baltimore. And in that role, he acquired a kind of forcefulness that he didn't have in his own personality."

Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas Ward, who served with Schaefer on the City Council, agreed that there were two Schaefers: the outrageous public figure and the timid private man.

"He was afraid to fly and traveled by train," Ward said. "On trips together, I never saw him gamble, drink, carry on or misbehave. He was essentially lonely. For all his publicity stunts, it's hard to believe he was essentially a shy guy."

It's one thing to overcome insecurity and reserve in order to function in a line of work that requires glad-handing. It's another to make dressing up in silly costumes — at different times, he appeared as H.L. Mencken, Abe Lincoln and, to mock a Sun report on a loan bank dubbed his "shadow government," The Shadow — central to your political shtick. Why did Schaefer go all the way from shrinking violet to showman?

Helen Szablya, his assistant press secretary in City Hall and later state Human Resources spokeswoman, said that was the only way Schaefer could stand out amid the colorful politicians of his era.

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