William Donald Schaefer's biggest achievement was also his most unlikely: A man insecure enough to earn the nickname "Shaky" managed to restore the self-confidence of an entire city.
The former mayor, governor and comptroller, who died Monday at the age of 89, sweated every election of his 50-year career in office — even the ones he won by wide margins. Doubts — about his humble roots, his lack of polish — tormented Schaefer, but also drove him in a way that served Baltimore.
"But I think that's what made him so admirable. He wasn't willing to rest on his laurels. Any politician who accomplished a tenth of what he accomplished could retire happily, knowing, 'I did this.' He felt he could always do more and he felt like he owed it to people."
By all appearances, Baltimore had in Schaefer a supremely confident, even arrogant mayor. He was a showboater who twisted arms and bent rules to get a waterfront remade, a stadium and an aquarium built, and a down-on-its-luck downtown reborn as an international tourist attraction.
But behind the scenes, even Schaefer's most famous act of mayoral derring-do was cause for fretting.
On July 15, 1981, Schaefer made good on a promise to jump into the seal pool if the new aquarium did not open on time. Sporting a Gay Nineties swimsuit and a Buster Keaton deadpan, he turned a delayed public project into a charming stunt that brought the city worldwide attention.
But in the hours before he took the plunge, Schaefer despaired, fearing it would be a big, fat bellyflop.
"It was tense, very tense," longtime aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs told The Baltimore Sun in 2006, on the 25th anniversary of his swim. "He's walking around in the office, and he says, 'I look so ridiculous.' And he did. I'm trying not to laugh my head off. ... If I even moved a finger, he was yelling at me."
Schaefer's mood on the way over to the aquarium only darkened, as he was overcome by a feeling that LeBow-Sachs described this way: "If you decided to play a joke on somebody, and as you started to do it, you thought, 'Jeez, this might not be funny.'"
It didn't help that one of Schaefer's closest friends, Gene Raynor, thought it was an awful idea.
"You're the mayor and you want to run for governor, and you're going to look like a jackass," Raynor recalled warning Schaefer.
But Schaefer forced himself to go through with it.
"He jumped in the pool and he made Time magazine," Raynor said. "He said, 'Next time I need good political advice, I'll ask you and do the opposite.' "
Schaefer pushed himself into the seal pool and countless other stunts because he thought they would give his city a badly needed boost, said Matthew A. Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
"For him that must have been really, really hard. He was always worried about making a fool of himself in public," Crenson said. "Here he had to go and do this crazy thing. It must have been excruciating for him. And yet he carried it off.
"He was a very complicated person, I think much more complicated than he appeared to the outside world. He started off as such a diffident politician that [West Baltimore political boss] Irv Kovens nicknamed him "Shaky." He never thought he was going to win. The other side was this fiercely confident advocate for Baltimore."
Crenson credits Schaefer with restoring the city's "sense of worth and confidence" — and creating a public image that was up to that task.
"He found a public persona that was different from his private self," Crenson said. "He became Baltimore. And in that role, he acquired a kind of forcefulness that he didn't have in his own personality."
Analysis: 'Shaky' Schaefer finds his way
A mayor who boosted Baltimore's confidence had to shore up his own along the way
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