Michael Scheyer lost his wife five years ago, then lost work as demand for electricians withered with the economy. Things have been so tight that he recently went through some old boxes in a back room at his North Carolina home to see if there might be anything in there he could sell.
What he turned up might just belong in a museum — or an aquarium: an old-fashioned yellow-and-red striped bathing suit, zebra-striped bathrobe and inflatable Donald Duck.
Looks a whole lot like the Victorian swim suit and props that William Donald Schaefer used in his famous 1981 dip in the aquarium seal pool.
Someone else claims to have the original bathing suit. I’ll get to that in a minute. But there’s little doubt that the stuff Scheyer turned up belonged to the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and comptroller. Scheyer’s wife, Dena Scheyer, cleaned house in the 1990s for Schaefer and his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.
“She got stuff from him every now and then,” said Scheyer, who moved from Maryland to North Carolina three years ago and never fully unpacked.
Scheyer figured the bathing suit and duck, both wrapped in tissue paper inside the cardboard box, were from Schaefer’s jump in the seal pool. He didn’t know what to make of the bathrobe, which unlike the striped suit and duck, doesn’t appear in the best-known photos of the day. But Schaefer did make his entrance in a zebra robe.
“Blinking a bit against the glare, the mayor pulled several more duckies from the pockets of his zebra-striped robe,” former Sun columnist C. Fraser Smith wrote in “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography.”
(There was a straw hat in the box, too, but it has a red-and-blue band around it; the one he wore in the seal pool had a black band.)
The bathing suit, of course, is what everyone remembers most — and is presumably the most valuable artifact. And George Goebel, owner of A.T. Jones costume shop on Howard Street, believes he has it.
A.T. Jones provided Schaefer with the suit, as well as many other costumes over the years, and kept it in a display case after the aquarium event, Goebel said. The shop lent it for many years to the Baltimore City Life Museums, which had it on display, but got it back when that closed in 1997.
Goebel believes that the swimwear Scheyer found also was worn by Schaefer, but at a later event when Schaefer reprised his role as Victorian swimmer. (I bounced that off longtime aide Mike Golden. He could not remember Schaefer dressing up in a striped bathing suit a second time. I suppose there were so many crazy costume-involved events in the Schaefer administration that some could fade from memory.)
In any case, the duck and robe are not in dispute. And the swim suit still seems like a collectible even if Schaefer wore it at a less famous event.
“I would not pooh-pooh it,” Goebel said. “It’s just as good as this one.”
Scheyer isn’t sure what to do with his find, which he boxed up again and took to Columbia to show me.
Scheyer has been staying in Columbia part of every week because he has found some work in the area. He’d like to sell the contents of the box but has been wary of just putting it on eBay. He thought by showing it to The Sun, a true Schaefer aficionado would hear about it and make him a good offer.
He hopes the stuff might bring in enough to buy a new set of tires. His are worn out from driving back and forth between North Carolina and Maryland, looking for work.