Schaefer and Kelly: Together in politics, death

Here is how Charlie Kelly imagined the scene at the pearly gates this week: William Donald Schaefer awaits entry as St. Peter goes over his list. Maybe his eyes are widening as he sees all the rude, bombastic things Schaefer has said over the years.

A diminutive woman who just passed through the gates interjects, "He really didn't mean all those things he said."

St. Peter continues down his list — it's a long one — and the woman starts to reconsider. "Maybe you're right," she says. "A little bit of purgatory might do him some good."

Pam Kelly was one of William Donald Schaefer's closest aides, from Baltimore's City Hall to the State House in Annapolis. She ran his Cabinet meetings, she managed his tantrums, she whispered election night intelligence in his ear.

And on Monday, she did one last piece of advance work for the former mayor and governor: Kelly, 66 and suffering from lung cancer, died four hours before Schaefer did.

"She probably was up there getting things ready for him," said her husband, Charlie.

Schaefer's circle, of which she was something of a social director, has been much in the news this week as they plan his memorial service and funeral next week. But to less public attention they have also been mourning the loss of the woman some considered Schaefer's right hand, someone whose counsel he trusted and who could be counted on to save him from himself.

"She had this raspy little voice," recalled Bob Douglas, a close friend of Kelly's and a former spokesman for Schaefer. "She'd go, — Gov-uh-nor, you don't want to do that.' Or, he'd say something outrageous and she'd go, — Gov-uh-nor, you don't mean that.'"

Douglas, now a partner at DLA Piper, said Kelly had fine political instincts and could judge which requests for Schaefer's ear should be granted or when "the boss" should be told of something.

"She knew the political veins of Baltimore," he said. "She knew the neighborhoods well. She knew the neighborhood activists. He trusted her. If she said, "You don't want to be associated with him,' he trusted her."

It was as unlikely a partnership as it was a lasting one. Kelly was born in Dubuque, Iowa, her husband said, moving to Waterloo as a child and earning a master's degree in library science from the University of Iowa. An official from the Enoch Pratt Free Library who happened to be lecturing at the university saw her on a demonstration, and offered her a job as a librarian in Baltimore. She moved to the city in 1968 to work in the young adult section of a branch library.

"She fell in love with the place, and then she fell in love with me," said Charlie Kelly, 68, who met his future wife through a club for young Catholics. "She had this laugh that was just infectious, and I thought, — I have to meet that lady.'"

They married in 1970 and became active in Democratic politics, working on local, state and national campaigns. They were longtime residents of Charles Village, where they were known for working on a host of neighborhood issues and where word of her death quickly spread.

Charlie Kelly, a former teacher, car sales manager and state employee, said that after about nine years as a librarian, his wife became the mayor's representative at the Wyman Park Multi-Purpose Center. After two years there, Schaefer brought her down to City Hall as an aide who handled many of his special projects, Kelly said.

Kelly, barely over 5 feet tall, became one of Schaefer's "little girls," his appellation for some. Charlie Kelly said it was an affectionate term, and that his wife and Schaefer shared a get-it-done approach to government.

"She believed all politics is local. She liked making things work right," Kelly said. "I always thought she could have been elected to City Council. But her politics was more, — I want to make sure good people get elected, and I want to make sure they do good things.'"

She became a close aide and a confidante, someone in the direct pipeline to Schaefer. In an article about then-Mayor Schaefer by Richard Ben Cramer for Esquire magazine in 1984, the writer describes a scene in which press secretary Pat Bernstein comes up with the "pink positive" campaign. "Pam Kelly, she's only been there three years, but she works with him all the time. Pam is good, you have to hand it to her. She's political — Pam can listen, nod and smile, and then say, — Absolutely.' She says it so firm, so strong. — Ab-suh-loot-ly!' Makes you feel good to hear it."

Kelly followed Schaefer to Annapolis when he became governor, and it was a testament of her importance in his administration that she was put in charge of running the Cabinet meetings, Douglas said.

"The Cabinet meetings were the most important part of his governing," Douglas said. Kelly ran the meetings, handing out Schaefer's in-house "eagle" and "turkey" awards and following up on agenda items that had been discussed.

"She made sure people did what they said they would do," said Daryl Plevy, deputy director of the state's Mental Hygiene Administration, who, like Kelly worked as an aide to Schaefer both in Baltimore and Annapolis.

Plevy said Schaefer assigned Kelly to mentor her at City Hall because she had never worked in government. Plevy described her as "a very nonjudgmental person."

"She met people where their heart was," she said.

"She could work with all kinds of people. She did a lot of his community work, helping neighborhoods get what they needed from City Hall — if someone was sick or needed to get to a hospital, if there was a tree down in the neighborhood."

Douglas called her "an unsung hero" of Schaefer administrations, the kind of person whose behind-the-scenes efforts allowed him to shine.

"She knew how to play his temper tantrums in a way that helped him," Douglas said. "If it would be detrimental, she would get him to settle down."

If Schaefer became known as Baltimore's head cheerleader, Kelly served the same role for him, said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a longtime friend of Pam and Charlie Kelly.

"She was such a positive, bubbly personality, and she brought that" to Schaefer, Clarke said.

Kelly went on to work at the Department of Natural Resources before retiring about 11/2 years ago. After Schaefer left public office, she continued to organize parties and gatherings for what Douglas said they called "the Schaefer family."

"At least once a year, there would be an event for him. There was always a Christmas party for him, and we would bring joke gifts," Douglas said. "He loved it."

Kelly and Schaefer hadn't seen each for about a year, although they spoke on the phone sometimes, as both dealt with failing health. Kelly was diagnosed with lung cancer in July and spent her final week in hospice care at Keswick Multi-Care Center.

Now, friends of both are faced with sending them off next week in successive services. Kelly's funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at SS Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in Charles Village, Schaefer's at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church downtown.

It brings comfort, Clarke said, to think that there is an afterlife in which the two of them have already reunited.

"For those many of us who got the word of both things that day, it was like, — Oh, my gosh, this is so profound,'" Clarke said. "Two such alive people —it gave me a feeling there is life out there, with these two out there together, things are already stirring up over there."