As mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer was known for - among other things - his ability to deflect questions about himself and his fondness for wearing silly hats.
Yesterday, at a breakfast gathering at a middle school cafeteria in Taneytown, the 78-year-old state comptroller donned a navy blue Civil War cap and talked about how his life has changed since he moved out of the governor's mansion in 1995.
"I'm now able to time my TV dinners and I know when to add fabric softener," he told the crowd of about 200 attending the Taneytown Business Breakfast at Northwest Middle School. "But I have difficulty ironing - I always seem to get streaks."
Then, after a pause, he said, "It's sort of a pitiful thing."
The crowd chuckled. By his talk's end, they had laughed at his jokes and had given him two standing ovations. When the speech was over, they stood in line to shake Schaefer's hand.
Schaefer, who has served in elected office for more than four decades, was in town ostensibly to talk about the scholarship fund he endowed at the University of Maryland School of Nursing named for his close friend Hilda Mae Snoops.
Snoops, who died last year of emphysema at age 74, had been Schaefer's companion for 30 years. A former nurse, she served as the state's official hostess when Schaefer was governor.
Schaefer, who visited Taneytown for an arts event last year, said he agreed to return because he was impressed by Mayor Henry C. Heine's enthusiasm about Taneytown's efforts to improve its downtown. "When you come to towns like this ... it gives you a real, real fine feeling," he said. "This is different. This is something special."
A Civil War enthusiast whose confrontational style earned him the nickname "Mayor Annoyed" and "Governor Annoyed" when he was in office, Schaefer was marched into the cafeteria flanked by a Civil War honor guard representing Union and Confederate armies. "I thought I was going to be shot," he said. "It wouldn't have surprised me."
Although he carried a manila folder containing a prepared speech, Schaefer's 30-minute talk - punctuated by two school bells and the muffled noise of the food service staff readying the "fish on roll" lunch special - was largely improvised.
It consisted of anecdotes and musings on topics ranging from the state's "excellent" economy to his dislike for retirement and how much he loved being mayor of Baltimore. "It was the best job I ever had," he said. "I didn't know it at the time, but I enjoyed every minute of it."
Schaefer was presented with $2,500 in donations for the nursing scholarship fund from a variety of businesses including Branch Bank and Trust, Westminster Union Bank, Lehigh Portland Cement and Carroll County General Hospital. The money came as a surprise.
"I don't want to get emotional, but the checks are big checks," Schaefer said after he took out his reading glasses and peered inside the envelopes.
The Taneytown Business Breakfast is a monthly informal gathering of business people from Carroll, Frederick, Howard and Baltimore counties started in 1998 by Taneytown economic development director Nancy McCormick.
This was Schaefer's first speaking engagement in six months.
"I don't make speeches anymore," he said. "When I did, it wasn't very good either."
The crowd - a blend of business owners, teachers, politicians and bureaucrats including Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier and interim Superintendent of Schools Charles I. Ecker - didn't seem to notice or care.
"He's really a dedicated individual, he always has been," said Mary Fredlund, a graphic designer and massage therapist who lives in Bolton Hill and attended the event because she wanted to hear what Schaefer would say to people in Taneytown.
Now she knows this, too: "He's not afraid to be human."