Mr. Schaefer's first hurrah

Forget City Councilman Schaefer. Forget City Council President Schaefer. Forget Governor Schaefer and State Comptroller Schaefer.

For many Baltimoreans out of knee pants and patent leather shoes by the early 1970s, there could be only one "Mr. Mayor," and his name, pronounced like a drum roll, was William Donald Schaefer.


Now, as his decades as a popularly elected official come to an end - a sad end - he reminisces about his long career. "You can take all those jobs except the job as mayor," he says, and figuratively trash-ball them. Only as mayor was he the boss. Only as mayor could he have contact with real people to accomplish real things. Real things such as filling a pothole, cleaning up an alley, even finding a podiatrist for a constituent with hurting feet.

One day, after learning of a dirty house that was afflicting a struggling neighborhood, he decided to do something about it. His solution: He and his director of public works were going to sleep in that house, along with all the vermin, unless the house was cleaned up by nightfall. It was cleaned up.


Those were the little things. But there were big things, especially construction of the shopping pavilions at the Inner Harbor and the beginnings of a Gold Coast that now stretches from Canton to Locust Point. This turned Baltimore, long a city to be shunned, into a tourist attraction.

Yet, beyond such physical improvements was the one big intangible that was Mayor Schaefer's greatest service to his city. He was, in effect, Baltimore's municipal hand-holder, its psychiatrist and cheerleader and bucker-upper. When he first moved into the mayor's office under the gold dome of City Hall, his city was "in the doldrums," a town with "the greatest inferiority complex" in the nation. It was a city that travelers from New York to Washington had to get around through endless vistas of junkyards and deteriorating neighborhoods. It was a city that was used to being laughed at and put down, all the while not so successfully pretending this added to its quaintness, its charm.

In 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Baltimore was torn by race riots that left three citizens dead, Gay Street and North Avenue a shambles, its African-American leadership caustically criticized by a governor, Spiro Agnew, who was later forced out of the vice presidency as a kickback taker. (Cash in plain white envelopes, please.) The riots, which Mr. Schaefer even today tries to minimize as "little riots," shattered the spirit of Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. During a trip to Germany in 1971, Young Tommy told a Baltimore reporter (me) that he was washed up, burned out and determined to leave City Hall. He did. And Don Schaefer was in - a replacement memorably misdescribed in a Sun editorial as too "bland."

For the new mayor, his promotion was the culmination of his dreams, an ascent from spear-carrier for one of Baltimore's old political bosses to a position in which he intimidated the City Hall bureaucracy, jousted with a business community that was his most effective ally and squabbled with a hometown newspaper that gave him the kind of attention most politicians would kill for.

Using a technique once perfected by the legendary labor leader Samuel Gompers, Mr. Schaefer had only one word for those seeking his gratitude. The word was more. Unless his underlings worked themselves into exhaustion, they were slackers. Unless business bigwigs saluted his every whim, they were ingrates. Unless newspapermen were nice to him, they were trying to "destroy" him.

He demanded fealty to his much-advertised obsession that "Baltimore is Best." That it was a great city waiting only for recognition by the very inhabitants who were most skeptical. And he succeeded beyond all expectations. One magazine described him as the best mayor in America. Talented young activists from afar came to Baltimore, ignited by the discovery of a diamond in the rough. Even though the city's population fell under the impact of block-busting and white flight, the wheels were set in motion for a waterfront revolution that today is boosting the city tax base with the sale of $5 million penthouses.

Looking back, Mr. Schaefer says the greatest thing he ever did for his city was to change its morale. With uplifting oratory and publicity stunts, he shifted attention from all-too-evident negatives to evanescent positives. Married to his job, working seven days a week, pushing, demanding, begging for service to his vision, he exemplified psychological leadership.

Tomorrow is his last day in public office.


"God, I had a good time when I was mayor," he now says in a nostalgic voice as he fumbles his way to a future that, at 85, he finds distinctly unchallenging. Perhaps it will be. But his accomplishments during his years in City Hall support the thesis that he has been the most remarkable Baltimore leader of the past half-century.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, editorial page editor of The Sun from 1972 to 1997, is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. His e-mail is