Schaefer's final hours

Longtime aide arranged conference call for his friends and colleagues just before former governor and mayor died

April 19, 2011|By Jean Marbella and Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Two weeks ago, William Donald Schaefer's closest aides gathered as they had so many times in the past: to get something done for him, on his chosen timetable of now.

"We became this working committee," said Mark Wasserman, Schaefer's one-time chief of staff. "This was one last lap around for the old man."

Almost daily, they met by conference call with a single agenda item: With the former governor and mayor's health precipitously declining, they needed to start planning how to commemorate this larger-than-life figure after his death.

In one sense, it was a way to channel their sadness into a familiar, get-it-done mode. Until Monday afternoon, when it was time to add Schaefer himself to the call. Business turned personal, and fine logistics turned to heartfelt farewells.

At Schaefer's bedside at the Charlestown retirement community, close aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs told the group, "Well, maybe you'd all like to say something to the governor."

One by one, they did, about 10 offering personal goodbyes as she held the phone to the ear of the semiconscious Schaefer.

"I said, 'I love you, and I always will be thinking of you,'" said Mike Golden, his former spokesman.

"I told him he had an enormous impact on me, and he was in my heart," Wasserman said.

Finally, there were no words left to be said, but one more message — this one from Jari Villanueva, the director of the Maryland National Guard's honor guard, who was on the conference call.

"Everyone else had spoken on the phone, and I did something completely spontaneous. I was in my office at the Fifth Regiment Armory, and I picked up my trumpet and played 'Maryland, My Maryland,'" Villanueva said.

By then, Schaefer's labored breathing was joined by their intensified sobbing. About two hours later, he would be gone.

Schaefer — whose funeral will be held next Wednesday in Baltimore — died in much the same way he had lived, at the center of innumerable circles, concentric and overlapping. The 89-year-old, who never married or had children, somehow touched many who would now shepherd him through his final days, grateful to have an opportunity to serve this most public of servants.

From retiring Maryland schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick to former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a veritable who's-who of officeholders had recently visited Schaefer at Charlestown in Catonsville, where he had moved reluctantly three years ago as he grew frail.

But if the move represented leaving behind earlier chapters of his life, he soon discovered that they had followed him to Charlestown.

"I was with him one afternoon in the lobby, and this man in his mid-80s called out, 'Don!'" recalled Sherry Parrish, Charlestown's director of resident life. "He said, 'Oh my God, how the hell are you?'"

It was a friend from Schaefer's old West Baltimore neighborhood, whose name Parrish couldn't recall. "Soon, they were talking about playing stickball in the streets, who hit whose window and broke it," she said. "These two men were boys again."

It was just one of many re-connections that Schaefer would make, Parrish said, walking downstairs to get his mail or dining in one of the community's restaurants.

"He was treated like a rock star," Parrish said. "He was a rock star."

For Brenda Daniels, who works at one of the sprawling communities' front desks, Schaefer was not so much a rock star as a beloved former neighbor. Years after she and her friends made his house on Edgewood Street their first stop every Halloween, she was delighted to look up from the desk one day in April of 2008 to see him moving into Charlestown.

Daniels, 55, grew up one block over, on Linnard Street, and said Schaefer helped her get her first job out of high school, as a typist for a city school. She also remembered how her mom sent her once to see why it took her father so long to pick up the evening newspaper every day.

"My father would go to the corner store across from [Schaefer's house]," she said. "[Schaefer] would be on his porch, and they would end up talking."

Ron Rogers, 73, likes to joke that he was under Schaefer both at City Hall and at Charlestown. The former systems analyst for the city lives in Apartment 101, five floors under Schaefer's 601.

After a career spent toiling for various mayors, Rogers is proud to have had the opportunity to help Schaefer navigate Charlestown. He and his wife, Anna May, became close friends with Schaefer, making sure he ate at least a few vegetables along with his beloved ice cream, and singing hymns around a piano, sometimes as late as midnight. Sometimes, they'd venture out, such as for a sour beef and dumplings meal at Rallo's in South Baltimore.

"You never knew who would come knocking at the door," Rogers said, noting visitors that included governors, first ladies and even one day Cardinal William H. Keeler.

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