Creating a legacy: It's much easier said than done

The Baltimore Sun

What does it take to make a legacy? A Sun story the other day about the "living legacy" of William Donald Schaefer - former mayor, governor and comptroller - offers some useful insight.

Years ago, reaching into his own pocket, he established a fund to help neighborhood groups in their pursuit of good works. This was the Schaefer of lore. In City Hall, he established something he called the Order of the Rose, which came with a certificate of merit for homeowners who added some proud touch to their home or block.

Mr. Schaefer, of course, will be thought to have a grander legacy: Harborplace, of course; a stadium or two; a world trade center; hotels; and on and on. All of these projects created a synergy known as the Schaefer Renaissance.

What he was after here was pride and an end to the city's inferiority complex.

He wanted to hear people say: Look at all we've done! We are somebody!

That feeling was the legacy. Every piece of it was needed to make it work - the roses no less than the bricks and mortar.

I was thinking about legacies recently, and how the word has been corrupted by overuse or thoughtless use or misuse. It's hijacked as a fancier way of saying "record." It's all about the good or bad works done by public officials like Mr. Schaefer and, of course, presidents. At some point near the end of a career, the august figure begins to be encircled by talk of his legacy.

President Bush this month went on a legacy-making trip to the Middle East. He set out, seven years into his eight-year administration, to unravel that region's gnarly problems before he leaves office, almost as if merely declaring the objective might oblige the thing to resolve itself, a sort of favor to the leader of the free world.

But isn't this the man who took office sneering at nation-building? I would have thought solving the dilemma of the Middle East went beyond the building of a single nation. Helping many nations sort through problems of great complexity wouldn't seem to be Mr. Bush's forte. For better or worse, his legacy is more likely to be the war in Iraq or the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Here's my point: A legacy creates itself. It's a summing up and an assigning of value to a life. Your legacy is that thing you made while you were doing your job - or not doing it.

In the dictionary, a legacy is defined as something you leave others. It's a bit tricky, though. Take Mr. Schaefer again. His legacy was the reinventing of a city, a new way of thinking about Baltimore. It was about stuff he said and did over a lifetime of service. He didn't utter his famous command - "Do it now!" - and then say to himself, "Whoa, that's got a nice legacy ring to it."

I suppose it's not beyond the realm of possibility that legacies can be prefabricated, fed into the air supply, drummed into the subconscious. But not with Mr. Schaefer. He didn't have time for that. He wanted three quick words that got something done. Right then. (He would likely claim he didn't know what the word legacy meant.)

The living legacy program announced last week, officially called the William Donald Schaefer Civic Fund, would be kept alive by the Baltimore Community Foundation and others. It's what Mr. Schaefer always wanted: enduring good works that led to other good works.

But with him it wasn't always about giving. It was about demanding. He wanted people to buy into their neighborhoods, their city and their state. You could ask him for something, and you might get it, but often there was a price. You had to make curtains for the multiservice center, a favorite example. You had to do some work on the ball field. You had to sweep the gutters, scrub the marble steps.

He wanted a new (or was it an old?) way of proceeding. Citizens would do more than simply live in their city. Passports to Baltimore were granted for the nurturing of a single rose, a tidy back alley, a wrought-iron railing freshly painted, a tree well free of cigarette butts.

His legacy was a new city and a challenge: See if you can keep it.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears on Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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