Schaefer and Kelly: Together in politics, death

Longtime aide dies on same day as former mayor and governor

April 20, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Here is how Charlie Kelly imagined the scene at the pearly gates this week: William Donald Schaefer awaits entry as St. Peter goes over his list. Maybe his eyes are widening as he sees all the rude, bombastic things Schaefer has said over the years.

A diminutive woman who just passed through the gates interjects, "He really didn't mean all those things he said."

St. Peter continues down his list — it's a long one — and the woman starts to reconsider. "Maybe you're right," she says. "A little bit of purgatory might do him some good."

Pam Kelly was one of William Donald Schaefer's closest aides, from Baltimore's City Hall to the State House in Annapolis. She ran his Cabinet meetings, she managed his tantrums, she whispered election night intelligence in his ear.

And on Monday, she did one last piece of advance work for the former mayor and governor: Kelly, 66 and suffering from lung cancer, died four hours before Schaefer did.

"She probably was up there getting things ready for him," said her husband, Charlie.

Schaefer's circle, of which she was something of a social director, has been much in the news this week as they plan his memorial service and funeral next week. But to less public attention they have also been mourning the loss of the woman some considered Schaefer's right hand, someone whose counsel he trusted and who could be counted on to save him from himself.

"She had this raspy little voice," recalled Bob Douglas, a close friend of Kelly's and a former spokesman for Schaefer. "She'd go, — Gov-uh-nor, you don't want to do that.' Or, he'd say something outrageous and she'd go, — Gov-uh-nor, you don't mean that.'"

Douglas, now a partner at DLA Piper, said Kelly had fine political instincts and could judge which requests for Schaefer's ear should be granted or when "the boss" should be told of something.

"She knew the political veins of Baltimore," he said. "She knew the neighborhoods well. She knew the neighborhood activists. He trusted her. If she said, "You don't want to be associated with him,' he trusted her."

It was as unlikely a partnership as it was a lasting one. Kelly was born in Dubuque, Iowa, her husband said, moving to Waterloo as a child and earning a master's degree in library science from the University of Iowa. An official from the Enoch Pratt Free Library who happened to be lecturing at the university saw her on a demonstration, and offered her a job as a librarian in Baltimore. She moved to the city in 1968 to work in the young adult section of a branch library.

"She fell in love with the place, and then she fell in love with me," said Charlie Kelly, 68, who met his future wife through a club for young Catholics. "She had this laugh that was just infectious, and I thought, — I have to meet that lady.'"

They married in 1970 and became active in Democratic politics, working on local, state and national campaigns. They were longtime residents of Charles Village, where they were known for working on a host of neighborhood issues and where word of her death quickly spread.

Charlie Kelly, a former teacher, car sales manager and state employee, said that after about nine years as a librarian, his wife became the mayor's representative at the Wyman Park Multi-Purpose Center. After two years there, Schaefer brought her down to City Hall as an aide who handled many of his special projects, Kelly said.

Kelly, barely over 5 feet tall, became one of Schaefer's "little girls," his appellation for some. Charlie Kelly said it was an affectionate term, and that his wife and Schaefer shared a get-it-done approach to government.

"She believed all politics is local. She liked making things work right," Kelly said. "I always thought she could have been elected to City Council. But her politics was more, — I want to make sure good people get elected, and I want to make sure they do good things.'"

She became a close aide and a confidante, someone in the direct pipeline to Schaefer. In an article about then-Mayor Schaefer by Richard Ben Cramer for Esquire magazine in 1984, the writer describes a scene in which press secretary Pat Bernstein comes up with the "pink positive" campaign. "Pam Kelly, she's only been there three years, but she works with him all the time. Pam is good, you have to hand it to her. She's political — Pam can listen, nod and smile, and then say, — Absolutely.' She says it so firm, so strong. — Ab-suh-loot-ly!' Makes you feel good to hear it."

Kelly followed Schaefer to Annapolis when he became governor, and it was a testament of her importance in his administration that she was put in charge of running the Cabinet meetings, Douglas said.

"The Cabinet meetings were the most important part of his governing," Douglas said. Kelly ran the meetings, handing out Schaefer's in-house "eagle" and "turkey" awards and following up on agenda items that had been discussed.

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