Willard Hackerman held no public office, but he was as much a city father to Baltimore as any mayor or City Council member, delegate or senator. Few, if any, have had a larger impact on this community than the 95-year-old man who died at Johns Hopkins Hospital Monday morning, and few have demonstrated greater devotion to it.
Mr. Hackerman, the builder of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the National Aquarium and the Baltimore Convention Center, has not always been treated kindly by this newspaper. He was, to put it simply, politically connected, rich and powerful. Under his leadership, Whiting-Turner Contracting became one of the nation's largest civil engineering firms (and with more than 2,100 employees and annual sales of $5 billion, the 117th largest private company in the U.S., according to Forbes), and his imprint can be found not only on numerous major Baltimore area construction projects but many across the country.
As such, there were often times when he faced potential conflicts of interest. He was particularly close to former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, and the sorts of public-private partnerships they developed together sometimes tested the limits of the do-it-now philosophy when it came to the ethical constraints of government contracting and public bidding.
A decade ago, a proposal to sell him an 836-acre tract of state-owned, environmentally-sensitive land in Southern Maryland landed him in a particularly embarrassing situation. That deal, set in motion during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had all the elements of controversies that had dogged Mr. Hackerman's past — it was developed secretly, preferentially and seemingly without regard to its value to taxpayers.
The sale didn't come to fruition, nor was it Mr. Hackerman's idea to begin with. But that wasn't unusual. At some point either during or after the Schaefer years, Whiting-Turner's CEO became the 800-pound gorilla of Baltimore economic development and philanthropy — nearly everyone beat a path to his door and sought his support for whatever they had in mind.
He was an immensely private person but something of a Horatio Alger story — a Jewish boy from a working class family in Forest Park who struck it rich by way of Baltimore Polytechnic School. He was also modest. Even now, Whiting-Turner's official history may note his arrival at the firm — in 1938 not long after he graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in engineering — but it fails to explain that the company was teetering on bankruptcy immediately before he showed up.
It would also be impossible to list his millions of dollars in charitable contributions, from gifts to Hopkins, his alma mater, to creation of the Walters Art Museum's Hackerman House and his support of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the construction of Hackerman-Patz residences that provide homes to families of seriously ill hospital patients. He simply wasn't given to bragging about such things. But when it was time to build a statue in memory of Mr. Schaefer five years ago, it was Mr. Hackerman who brought out the checkbook to pay for it. When others sought to create a fountain around the Inner Harbor to recall his good friend, the late civic leader Walter Sondheim, Mr. Hackerman emerged as a major donor for that project, too. In recent years, he was also the key figure in a plan to build a new downtown arena, hotel and expanded convention center.
That combination of civic-mindedness and financial largesse is a rarity that Baltimore may never see again. The city simply doesn't have that many large corporate headquarters and CEOs from which such a person might spring forth. That his actions sometimes blurred the lines of public service and private gain may have been inescapable given the circumstances of a city in need of redevelopment and a developer who sought to make his city a better place by building projects in it.
This much is certain: He will be missed. Not only by his family and friends but by a community that was clearly better for his presence in it — that benefited greatly from his entrepreneurial genius and his charitable inclinations.
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