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Ellicott City church honors Schaefer

Gary Memorial United Methodist Church places plaque where governor once worshipped

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

8:04 PM EDT, June 26, 2011

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The days after William Donald Schaefer's death were filled with pomp and circumstance — a long farewell that culminated with hundreds packing a downtown Baltimore church to memorialize one of Maryland's larger-than-life figures.

Sunday, an Ellicott City church offered a smaller, yet perhaps more fitting memorial to the late governor, comptroller and Baltimore mayor. The Gary Memorial United Methodist Church recognized Schaefer, a one-time member, with a roughly hour-long service and a small gold plaque. It was a modest dedication to the leader, whom the church remembered Sunday as "a simple man of simple faith."

The plaque, which featured that epitaph as well as Schaefer's image and former titles, was placed on a pew four rows back on the far right side of the nave ¿ where Schaefer sat on Sundays during the six years he worshiped there.

"It was so simple," said Lainy LeBow-Sachs, Schaefer's longtime aide and personal representative. "So Schaefer."

LeBow-Sachs sat in the third row Sunday ¿ Schaefer's pew was empty ¿ alongside Mark Wasserman, Schaefer's one-time chief of staff. LeBow-Sachs, who was frequently brought to tears during the dedication, said she would visit Schaefer's mausoleum Sunday to tell him about the plaque dedication. There hasn't been a day since his death that someone hasn't shared a fond memory of his legacy, she said.

"But he was a simple person," she said. "Out of everything, the statues and everything, he would say, 'This is it.'"

Gary Memorial, which is tucked away in Patapsco Valley State Park next to a welding company, was unknown to many until it appeared as a beneficiary of Schaefer's last will and testament, released in May. In his will, Schaefer left the church $10,000.

It was then that many learned that for six years, Schaefer traveled to Howard County, up a long, winding road to the haven known by its members as 'The Friendly Church on Standfast Hill.'

Schaefer was drawn to the church by his former secretary of human resources, Luther Starnes, who served as a pastor there for 23 years. Schaefer stopped attending the church regularly around 2002, but still sent gifts and donations until his death.

Starnes, whom Schaefer left $5,000 in his will, read a poem for his friend at the dedication Sunday. He recalled how, even to those who had been baptized at the church decades ago, Schaefer proclaimed Gary Memorial "my church." Members said they still wonder if he chose his seat for its obscurity, or for the beam of sunlight that shone through the adjacent window.

According to a note in the church's bulletin, Schaefer said that when he reflected on his years at the church, "I find myself looking forward to that hour on Sunday mornings when I can be near so many fine people," he said.

He described the congregation as welcoming, the choir enthusiastic, and the modest building that hosts about 80 members a place where he felt at home.

On Sunday, the humility Schaefer spoke of was abundant, as members, some whose Sunday best included T-shirts donning their favorite sports team, sang Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary to those celebrating.

"There is nothing pretentious about Gary Memorial," Schaefer's quote read." The congregation is as solid and as enduring as the stone the church is made from."

For members, the feeling was mutual. In his sermon, the Rev. Tim Kromer described how the church struggled at first to properly extend hospitality to such a prominent figure. He even worried about offending Republican members by openly welcoming a Democratic governor.

"Welcoming a governor might not be as easy as it seems," Kromer said. "Do you give him a reserved seat? Do you thank him every Sunday?'

But he pointed to Schaefer's own words in describing how the church came to embrace one of Maryland's most formative leaders. "We welcomed him, not as a rich or powerful person, but simply as a child of God."

"Feeling at home is different than rolling out the red carpet or the nice tablecloths," Kromer said. "If you feel at home, it's because you're treated like family."

Harlean Liebno, who has attended Gary Memorial for 30 years, said she remembered Schaefer as "just like us."

"He really seemed to be in the church spirit ¿ like he was at peace," Liebno said. "It was like he came for his soul. He didn't come to impress anyone, he just came to hear the message."

Seeing Schaefer's face on the plaque will fill a void that churchgoers said had been felt since Schaefer became too ill to travel to the church regularly, said Linda Kenderdine, a member of Gary Memorial who also worked for Schaefer while he was governor.

Kenderdine recalled how he would arrive at the church early, and would be surrounded by people in the church's fellowship hall. She said, "he more listened than anything else ¿ and he loved the children."

"We would enjoy seeing him here," Kenderdine said. "Ever since he was no longer able to attend, there wasn't a week that went by that we wouldn't look over there."

erica.green@baltsun.com