Olesker on Schaefer: 'He Kept the Town Alive'
According to longtime Baltimore journalist and author Michael Olesker, the essence of William Donald Schaefer's political style can be captured with two words: personal contact.
Without him, Baltimore’s another Detroit, another Newark with its pride all gone for the last half-century. You start with that when you take the measure of William Donald Schaefer, who died Monday night, at 89, after putting his mark on the 20th century the way no other political figure did in the state of Maryland.
He was mayor, he was governor, he was state comptroller, but everybody knows the legend begins with Baltimore, a city being dusted off by the obit writers when Schaefer took over City Hall four decades ago, when the job looked like a suicide mission.
The city had barely survived the 1968 riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and it was barely surviving their extended aftermath. Once the nation’s sixth-largest city, it was leaking bodies by the tens of thousands. Once the cultural and commercial and political hub of Maryland, it was losing muscle to the D.C. suburbs. Once a city of thriving neighborhoods, these enclaves were now locked down and frightened.
Downtown was ghostly after dark, and not much better in daylight, with the big Howard Street department stores vacating as fast as they could find a suburban mall to plant themselves. No Harborplace back then, no ballparks surrounded by glad yuppie bars with music and laughter late into the night, no young people discovering funky Fells Point and Canton and Hampden and Federal Hill. Only silence in the dark all around, and the fear of what might be lurking out there.
If people had money to spare, they hired moving vans. They headed for Rosedale, for Westminster, for Pikesville and Bel Air and Glen Burnie. Anywhere, just so it was outside the doomed city where the drug dealers were killing entire neighborhoods and the public schools were falling down and the antagonism between black people and white people was palpable.
Who could have expected such a Pied Piper as Schaefer?
He was a guy who couldn’t give a speech without getting lost in the thickets of his own syntax. He dressed in Early Attic. His suits looked like rumpled Salvation Army leftovers, and his neckties always stopped midway down his paunch. Sometimes his socks didn’t match. Then there was that famous physical description: “that stubby little body, the melon head, the double chin."
That was Esquire magazine, back in 1984. The thing is, the description was part of a piece that called him "The Best Damned Mayor in America."
And what did Schaefer think of it? “The worst piece of journalism I ever saw,” he told everybody.
It had too much focus on his personal life—which was a shock, because everybody thought he had no taste for a personal life, that he’d submerged his whole personality into the city’s, which was his mistress.
How did he win everybody over? First, he lied. He kept claiming, “Baltimore is best,” and turned it into a municipal ad campaign that rang in everybody’s ears until enough people started believing it. Then he turned to theater: Think Pink Day, and funny hats, and that famous dip in the aquarium seal pool, all of it corny but good-natured stuff—and all designed to lift a beaten city out of its doldrums.
And then, the famous attention to detail. He wanted every alley cleaned, every pothole filled, every complaint to City Hall answered. It came from a single impulse, a tiny piece of history with the mother he’d lived with his entire life. He remembered her trying to get a light fixed in front of their house. Schaefer was mayor by then, but he sat back and watched the process play out.
It took his mother a month before she got some sleepy City Hall lifer to wake up long enough to help her. The lesson stayed with Schaefer: If it could happen to his mother, it could happen to anybody.
So he found a vacant house filled with trash and rats and told sanitation bureaucrats they had a choice: Clean it up in 10 days, or start holding their staff meetings in the middle of the mess. Beautiful! People up and down the block never saw such excitement. As Schaefer recalled it, they were learning somebody cared about them.
That was the essence of it all: personal contact.
It didn’t work so well once he got to Annapolis. The problems were different, and the General Assembly’s collective ego larger than the City Council’s, and Schaefer’s patience by then had grown frazzled. He hated being governor. He was tired, he was getting older and crankier. He fumed when the critics picked on his lady companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.
At some point, for better or worse, he abandoned all internal editing. Once, at the Democratic National Convention, in Atlanta, he headed the Maryland delegation as they convened for dinner at a farm that was described as the model for Tara in Gone With the Wind.
I was standing next to Schaefer as a man from the local Chamber of Commerce approached with a lovely young girl, trailed by a TV news crew, shooting the whole thing live.
“Governor,” said the Chamber of Commerce guy, pointing to the young lady, “this is Miss Melanie Meadows. She is Miss Atlanta County’s Scarlett O’Hara. Doesn’t she look just like Scarlett O’Hara?”
Schaefer gave her the once-over and then, with both the state delegation and the TV folks listening, he declared, “Yeah. And I look just like Rhett Butler.”
He knew he didn’t. He knew he was the guy in the rumpled suit with the melon head, and he knew all of his homeliness just as he knew his city’s. And he knew how to fix a lot of his city’s troubles, when everybody said it was too late. He kept the town alive. And that’s a pretty good epitaph for anybody.