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THE CITY SCHOOLS were in crisis. The usual poohbahs - mayor, governor, superintendents, senators, delegates - were meeting. A news conference was called to announce the solution. And there, in his usual place on the edge of the spotlight, was this Zelig-like figure of Baltimore leadership - Bob Embry.

Mayors and governors and superintendents and crises have come and gone. The constant has been the slightly dour face of Robert C. Embry Jr. Though he smiles easily, many see only those downturned eyebrows and lips, an expression of seriousness or disapproval, perhaps both.

Embry's face has appeared in a lot of places over the past four decades in Baltimore. For more than 15 years, he has headed the Abell Foundation, which agreed this month to lend the school system $8 million to help it out of its cash flow crisis.

Life could have worked out differently for Embry. He could have been mayor. He could have been a U.S. Cabinet secretary. He could have been a CIA operative.

Or he could have been an ambassador. That was the career track of most of his classmates at Harvard in the early 1960s when Embry was getting a master's degree in foreign affairs and a law degree.

"Most people were going into the foreign service," Embry says. "But I was interested in the problems of cities. So I decided to come back to Baltimore and run for public office."

Baltimore was home. That was where he had graduated from City College in 1955. He went to the only college he applied to - Williams in Massachusetts.

There, Embry was recruited by the CIA and went into the Marines as a result. "That was the standard cover for all CIA people then," he says. "The Marines or the Army." But after a few months he decided that wasn't for him. His Marine hitch was converted to the Reserve, and he went on to Harvard.

Embry studied Islamic history. He thinks it was because of romantic visions implanted by the 1939 film Beau Geste about the adventures in the French Foreign Legion. But instead of the sands of the Sahara, the streets of Baltimore beckoned.

Embry ran for City Council in 1967. He was age 29, part of a new generation of city political leaders, when he took his seat representing Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District.

Not long after that, Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III tapped Embry to be the city housing commissioner.

"It was a tough decision for him," D'Alesandro says. "He was newly elected and he was afraid a lot of people would think he wasn't fulfilling his commitment. But he was a godsend, an absolute brilliant public servant. He was dedicated to the city, and he had an ability to comprehend the problems facing the city immediately."

When D'Alesandro decided not to run for a second term in 1971, Embry toyed with running for mayor. He decided against it, clearing the way for the earnest, if uncharismatic, president of the City Council to win the office. That man's name was William Donald Schaefer. Embry stayed on as Schaefer's housing commissioner.

This was a time of great problems and exciting solutions, of $1 houses and downtown redevelopment, of the types of things that put Baltimore on the map as the Renaissance city.

Today, Embry can look out at the stunning view from his 23rd floor office on South Calvert Street and see many of the results, flourishing neighborhoods like Otterbein and Federal Hill where houses were deteriorating and prices declining before he helped begin their redevelopment. The view is dominated by the Inner Harbor and Harborplace, the anchor of all that came after.

"I was up in Boston visiting Quincy Market with Jim Rouse," Embry recalls of a time in the 1970s. "And I said, 'Why don't you build one of these on the harbor in Baltimore?'"

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, Embry was almost named to his Cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, the job went to Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African-American woman to hold a Cabinet post. Embry became an assistant secretary, trying to bring the ideas that he used in Baltimore to other urban areas.

After Carter's defeat in 1980, Embry joined his City College classmate - and fellow HUD administrator - David Cordish, in a development business specializing in the types of urban shopping areas that had worked in Baltimore.

Though he was making the type of money Harvard law graduates are supposed to make, the work did not satisfy him. By 1985, Embry was back in the public arena, named president of the Baltimore school board. He, of course, had plans - for character education, for contracts with parents to monitor homework and limit television.

And he had ambitions. Now, maybe, he could get back to his political career with a run for mayor in 1987. He resigned from the school board in 1986 to consider a campaign.

As with the HUD Cabinet post, race played a part in his fate. Baltimore was on the verge of electing its first black mayor, choosing between Kurt L. Schmoke and Clarence H. Du Burns.

Because Embry was behind in the polls, it was clear that his only chance was to be the spoiler, getting the white vote while Schmoke and Burns split the black vote. That role didn't appeal to him. He decided not to run. "I always wanted to run for mayor, but I didn't really want to be mayor," he says. "It is a job that is too much in the public eye."

That year, the sale of the A.S. Abell Co., to the Times Mirror Co. was finalized. The small charity arm of the A.S. Abell Co. that had founded the Baltimore Sunpapers saw its holdings expand tenfold with the sale. The foundation had more than $100 million in assets, enough to make it a serious player in the city.

"What happened was that they went around asking people in the city what role the foundation should play," Embry says. "My ideas turned out to be exactly what the board had in mind so they asked me if I would head it."

Embry, now 66, had just turned age 50 and seemed content to say goodbye to a political career. "I always assumed when I took that that it would be the only job I would ever have," he says.

As head of the Abell Foundation, Embry would never be captain of the big ship, but would instead run a crucial tugboat, providing necessary guidance, pushing and pulling as the big ship comes into the harbor.

The foundation is not huge. With about $210 million in assets, it hands out about $10 million or $11 million a year.

So Embry targets Abell money in areas that he thinks are crucial to the city. Education is a dominant one.

Asked to name his proudest success, Embry looks out his office window to the east and points out City Springs Elementary School. "We financed an organization that took over that school when its test scores were at the bottom," he says. "They are now second in the city. And that's with 100 percent kids from public housing."

Convinced that the city - and its schools - need to attract and retain middle-class families to thrive, he has supported downtown residential redevelopment and the Ingenuity Project, a math-science Gifted and Talented program in middle schools and at Polytechnic Institute, as well as projects at his alma mater, City College.

"Those are about excellence," he says. "For some reason, there are those in the school system who are afraid of excellence. They see it as elitist, or a white thing, which seems surprising coming from people who are supposed to be educators."

He views the loan to help bail out the Baltimore school system in strategic terms. "If they had laid off 1,200 people, it would have made it difficult for Baltimore to attract good young teachers to come take jobs here," he says.

"I talk to Bob almost every day," says Robert R. Neall, the former state senator who is shepherding the school system through this crisis. "He wants to know what is going on and what he can do to help."

Embry and his wife, sculptor Mary Ann Mears, have backed up their commitment to the school system in a way that few others of such standing have. Their four daughters have gone from their home in the tony Poplar Hills neighborhood to city public schools.

The youngest is an eighth-grader at Roland Park Middle School. The next in line is at City College. Another graduated from School for the Arts and is at Vasser College. His eldest went to City, then Yale and is now at Columbia University Law School.

"I went to the A-course at City when it was considered one of the best in the country," Embry says, noting that the school was segregated then. "My daughters have gotten a much better education there than I got."

Embry has often been asked why he took this course of civic involvement; where the drive came from.

"I think John Kennedy had something to do with it," he says. "And Christ."

Not the church, necessarily, Embry says. "Like many people, I wonder about the value of organized religion."

He is reading a book about how many of Christ's teachings were rejected by the early church as it wrote the early creeds. He notes that Thomas Jefferson once cut out all supernatural references in the Gospels and published only the words of Jesus as his belief system. Embry says he was greatly affected by Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew that showed a passionate, angry Jesus.

"Christ was really a radical, a reformer," he says.

The bottom line is that Embry finds grappling with urban problems just as intriguing today as when he left Harvard to return to Baltimore in 1964.

"I've liked every job I have had," he says. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do."

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