He became a member of the vestry of Bishop Cummins Memorial Church, and though shy as a young man, went to some lengths to meet people by joining such groups as the Shriners, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, and numerous improvement associations and Democratic clubs.

Mr. Schaefer became interested in politics in the early 1950s when his church tried to buy a parcel of land but failed because, he said, "the politicians sold it to somebody else." The experience prompted him to make two runs for election to the House of Delegates. He lost both times.

Nevertheless, he worked at building a political base through neighborhood associations and, in 1955, caught the eye of Irvin Kovens, a West Baltimore businessman and unmatched political fundraiser.

Mr. Schaefer ran for the City Council from the 5th District that year with the help of Mr. Kovens and was elected. More importantly, they became lifelong friends and formed one of the most effective political alliances in Maryland political history.

"From the day I met him till this minute he was the greatest," Mr. Kovens said in a 1979 interview with The Sun. "He's as nice a guy that ever walked in shoe leather."

Mr. Kovens died in 1989 after a prolonged illness. Shortly before his death he asked Mr. Schaefer to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The governor characterized the request as "the highest honor for me."

Before beginning the eulogy, Mr. Schaefer was all but overcome with sobbing, exhibiting the deeply emotional side of a competitive and demanding public official.

As a neophyte councilman, Mr. Schaefer gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working elected officials in the city government. In his early years, he concentrated on bread-and-butter matters such as home rehabilitation, trash collection and school maintenance. Later, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he shepherded through the council much of the city's housing and urban renewal legislation of that period.

The future mayor first ran on a citywide ballot in 1967 when he won the council presidency. In a departure from past practice, he worked at the $15,000-a-year post full time.

In 1971, when Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III decided not to seek another term, Mr. Schaefer jumped into the race. He won the Democratic primary with nearly 54 percent of the vote, but in a sign of Baltimore's changing demographics, his closest competitor was City Solicitor George Russell, an African-American.

The general election was a cakewalk, with Mr. Schaefer receiving 84 percent of the vote in a matchup with Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont, a perennial Republican candidate.

Transforming downtown

Mr. Schaefer quickly established himself as the city's No. 1 cheerleader — even though there was little to cheer about.

The city was in the throes of a transformation — accelerated by rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 — from a middle-class ethnic European stronghold to an impoverished urban center with a black majority. Block-busting and white flight were devastating its neighborhoods, while a corporate exodus was bleeding away the employment base.

Mr. Schaefer brought to City Hall an intensity rarely seen in public life. He built a strong, energetic team of aides who would go on to long careers in municipal leadership — housing commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr., finance director Charles L. Benton, chief of staff Joan Bereska, lobbyist Janet Hoffman and tourism chief Sandy Hillman, to name a few.

During his first term, Mr. Schaefer conducted a frenzied campaign of boosterism. He encouraged "urban homesteading" in once-blighted neighborhoods and relentlessly promoted tourism in a city travelers went out of their way to avoid. To bring a splash of color to the city's Christmas, he ordered lights hung from the once-sacrosanct Washington Monument. He launched a renovation of the decrepit City Hall.

"It was a period when Baltimore was a bit lethargic, so suddenly comes along this unlikely mayor who takes Baltimore and shakes it by the lapels — and people wanted to have their lapels shaken," said Mark Wasserman, a longtime aide in both city and state government.

It was during these years that "Do It Now" became the catchphrase for Mr. Schaefer's approach to governing — and it would follow him through his career. But the phrase also came to embody his unrelenting pressure on his staff. Over the years, some of his closest associates would burn out and move on to less stressful jobs.

With the city's finances ailing, Mr. Schaefer trolled aggressively for every federal and state dollar he could bring to Baltimore. In Annapolis, he could count on Gov. Marvin Mandel — another Baltimore politician of the old school — for consistent support. But his cantankerous and successful begging raised hackles in the General Assembly. If Mr. Schaefer cared, he never showed it.

By 1975, Mr. Schaefer had solidified his political base to the point that no credible candidate thought of challenging him. He won re-election easily and began what might have been the most productive period of his mayoral career.