Joan Bereska, the senior aide to then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer who helped conceive of a celebrated publicity stunt at the National Aquarium, died in her sleep of respiratory failure Thursday at her Roland Avenue home. She was 87.
Often called the most powerful unelected person at Baltimore’s City Hall, she held Mr. Schaefer’s confidences for 20 years. In collaboration with him, she boosted Baltimore through fill-a-pothole promotions and other municipal endeavors, including the Baltimore is Best campaign.
“In many ways, Joan was the unsung hero of the Baltimore renaissance,” said Robert C. Douglas, Mr. Schaefer’s former communications director and press secretary. “She pushed people to do their best for the city.”
Said a 1984 Sun story: “A physically imposing woman, with a deep, throaty voice and a deliberate way of speaking, and reading glasses perched somewhat primly above her head, Ms. Bereska describes herself as 'volatile, ‘high competitive’ and above all, ‘a disciplinarian of the first order.’”
She once said her relationship with Mr. Schaefer was like being like a tickbird on a rhinoceros’ back.
Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Webster Burrier, a Baltimore Transit Company worker, and his wife, Ethel Sunderland, a part-time schoolteacher. She grew up on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden. The family owned a pet pony that she kept in a converted garage.
In interviews, Mrs. Bereska recalled riding the pony in nearby Druid Hill Park — she rode him across the Cedar Avenue Bridge — and mucking out the stable as well early in the morning before she set off for school.
She said of her upbringing: “Nobody in those days in Hampden was getting out and going to college. Nobody. You couldn’t do it. But I went ahead and did it.”
She was a 1950 graduate of Western High School and earned a bachelor’s degree at what is now McDaniel College. She later received a master’s degree in public administration and a law degree at the University of Baltimore.
After briefly working for Glenn L. Martin aircraft in Middle River, she joined the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association, where she met Schaefer, then a young City Council member. The year was 1957.
“Hard-driving, no-nonsense types, with a penchant for mastering details, the two got along immediately,” said a 1984 Sun story.
In 1967, when Mr. Schaefer ran for City Council president, Mrs. Bereska ran his campaign. She soon joined him to City Hall as his assistant, a post that was created for her. She took a pay cut from her then-job with the Girl Scouts.
She said she proved herself at City Hall. “I just set out to work harder than anyone else and longer than anyone else and to prove I’m good in my own right," Mrs. Bereska said in 1984.
Sandra S. Hillman, the former director of the Office of Promotion and Tourism, said: “Joan played a very important role in the early days of the Schaefer administration. She made sure that neighborhoods were considered important.”
In 1968 Karen Blair went to work as a typist with Mr. Schaefer and Mrs. Bereska.
“Joan loved politics. She was tough to work for and at the same time great to work for. She was strict and she wanted things done a certain way. She was old-school and was a stickler for proper grammar. In a conversation, she would correct you.”
Ms. Blair recalled Mrs. Bereska’s creative side, saying: “She was full of ideas, like getting potholes paved in February and putting a Valentine heart on them. When Schaefer said let’s light the Washington Monument for Christmas, she pulled the strings to get it done. She got the pylon built that says ‘Baltimore’ when you enter the city on I-295.”
Ms. Blair said Mrs. Bereska played a role on two occasions at the National Aquarium.
“When they were planning the groundbreaking, Schaefer said let’s do something to make this more interesting. Joan got busy and called in Faidley’s Seafood at Lexington Market to get a ton of seaweed. Then she hired a model to play a mermaid. The model didn’t work out as planned and I had to fill in at the last minute. You should have seen Schaefer’s face,” Ms. Blair said.
A second mermaid was chosen when the National Aquarium opened in 1981. The preparations were now more elaborate — Mrs. Bereska’s behind-the-scenes doing — and Mr. Schaefer donned an antique seaside bathing costume to swim in an exterior seal pool. He was photographed clutching an inflatable rubber duck.
The stunt, which was widely carried by news organizations, was occasioned by a bet. Mr. Schaefer pledged that the aquarium would open July 1, 1981, or he would “jump in the tank.” After the actual opening was moved to Aug. 8, Schaefer promised to make good. The stunt turned a routine aquarium opening into national feel-good news.
“Joan was the kind of person who remembered things. She thought in advance, how is Schafer going to get into and out of that seal pool. She had the Department of Public Works build a pair of steps so he could make a graceful entrance and exit,” said C. Fraser Smith, a former Sun reporter and author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography."
In that 1999 book, Mr. Smith wrote, "Her life merged with his public life almost completely."
In addition to arranging the pool ladder, she also had lifeguards stand by.
M.J. “Jay” Brodie, the former Baltimore City housing commissioner, said of Mrs. Bereska, “She was smart, energetic and worked her tail off.”
He also said: “Joan was one of those essential people who could make city government work. They know the heads of departments and they make the wheels turn. She was also good working with the City Council. The members respected her.”
Mrs. Bereska served the Schaefer administration until the middle 1980s. Colleagues said the pair gradually distanced themselves. He did not appoint her to a post in Annapolis after his 1986 election as governor.
Mrs. Bereska left City Hall and became the caretaker for her mother, who died in 1993.
She visited Mr. Schaefer at his Charlestown Retirement Community home before his 2011 death. Her son said they talked about the old times.
“She was Donald Schafer’s enforcer,” said her son, George John Bereska, a Rodgers Forge resident. “Her enemies called her the dragon lady — affectionately."
He said his mother requested that no funeral be held.