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National Aquarium to unveil mural of former Baltimore mayor's seal pool swim

National Aquarium to unveil mural of former Baltimore mayor's seal pool swim
Mayor William Donald Schaefer, with mermaid and rubber ducky, frolics in the seal pool at the National Aquarium. The July 15, 1981, stunt is being commemorated in a mural to be unveiled at the aquarium on April 11. (Lloyd Pearson / Baltimore Sun archives)

Former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer lives! And so does his inflatable rubber ducky.

After losing a bet, the longtime mayor and two-term Maryland governor once donned a Victorian-era bathing suit and the aforesaid inflatable water fowl to immerse himself in the unfinished National Aquarium’s seal pool. On Thursday, a mural commemorating that famous dip will be unveiled at the aquarium.

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Local artist Joseph Sheppard’s “Schaefer’s Splash” will go on display in a private ceremony beginning at 7 p.m., with the unveiling itself set for around 7:45 p.m. It will be on view to the public beginning Friday.

Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, doffing his hat and holding a rubber ducky, prepares to dive into the 70,000-gallon seal pool at the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor in 1981.
Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, doffing his hat and holding a rubber ducky, prepares to dive into the 70,000-gallon seal pool at the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor in 1981. (April Saul / Baltimore Sun archives)

Tagged “the splash heard ‘round the world,” Schaefer’s stunt was greeted with tremendous good humor by a city that happily embraced its visionary, if sometimes a little oddball, mayor. The 1981 plunge made the national news, spawned a small cottage industry of souvenirs (many a Baltimore home displayed photos of a game Mayor Schaefer entering the pool) and shone a spotlight on the city’s efforts to revive and re-brand its waterfront. Under Schaefer’s leadership, the Inner Harbor was transformed from a rundown industrial shipping port to a tourist attraction and what the Urban Land Institute described as “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world,” according a press release from the aquarium.

Schaefer had long envisioned an aquarium as the centerpiece of that effort. In January 1981, flush with enthusiasm for the in-its-final-stretches $21 million project, Schaefer pledged that the aquarium would meet its projected opening date of July 1, or he would “jump in the tank” himself. When the opening date was pushed back to Aug. 8, Schaefer promised to make good.

On July 15, he did just that. “The Honorable William Donald Schaefer, wearing a turn-of-the-century bathing costume in place of his dignity, clutched a large rubber duck and stepped into the National Aquarium seal pool, disappearing up to the brim of his straw boater,” The Sun reported. “The mayor sputtered. The crowd went wild.”

Said the mayor, “I’m a man of my word.”

Schaefer was joined in his dip by a similarly attired Frank A. Gunther Jr., chairman of the aquarium board, as well as by three harbor seals, who seemed totally uninterested in the goings-on. After a few minutes in the water, he climbed up on a rock and sat next to a mermaid, who kissed him on the cheek.

He was back on dry land after about 15 minutes. Asked by reporters if he was sorry about making the promise in the first place, Schaefer, probably realizing the permanent place in Baltimoreans’ hearts the stunt won for him, didn’t hesitate.

“I guess if I had it to do over again,” he said, “I would.”

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