Analysis: 'Shaky' Schaefer finds his way

William Donald Schaefer's biggest achievement was also his most unlikely: A man insecure enough to earn the nickname "Shaky" managed to restore the self-confidence of an entire city.

The former mayor, governor and comptroller, who died Monday at the age of 89, sweated every election of his 50-year career in office


even the ones he won by wide margins. Doubts — about his humble roots, his lack of polish — tormented Schaefer, but also drove him in a way that served Baltimore.


"He would get into funks if he felt not enough was being done, and I guess in a way he saw that as a reflection of himself," said Mike Golden, who covered the mayor as a radio reporter and went on to work as his spokesman in Annapolis.

"But I think that's what made him so admirable. He wasn't willing to rest on his laurels. Any politician who accomplished a tenth of what he accomplished could retire happily, knowing, 'I did this.' He felt he could always do more and he felt like he owed it to people."

By all appearances, Baltimore had in Schaefer a supremely confident, even arrogant mayor. He was a showboater who twisted arms and bent rules to get a waterfront remade, a stadium and an aquarium built, and a down-on-its-luck downtown reborn as an international tourist attraction.

But behind the scenes, even Schaefer's most famous act of mayoral derring-do was cause for fretting.


On July 15, 1981, Schaefer made good on a promise to jump into the seal pool if the new aquarium did not open on time. Sporting a Gay Nineties swimsuit and a Buster Keaton deadpan, he turned a delayed public project into a charming stunt that brought the city worldwide attention.

But in the hours before he took the plunge, Schaefer despaired, fearing it would be a big, fat bellyflop.

"It was tense, very tense," longtime aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs told The Baltimore Sun in 2006, on the 25th anniversary of his swim. "He's walking around in the office, and he says, 'I look so ridiculous.' And he did. I'm trying not to laugh my head off. ... If I even moved a finger, he was yelling at me."

Schaefer's mood on the way over to the aquarium only darkened, as he was overcome by a feeling that LeBow-Sachs described this way: "If you decided to play a joke on somebody, and as you started to do it, you thought, 'Jeez, this might not be funny.'"

It didn't help that one of Schaefer's closest friends, Gene Raynor, thought it was an awful idea.

"You're the mayor and you want to run for governor, and you're going to look like a jackass," Raynor recalled warning Schaefer.

But Schaefer forced himself to go through with it.

"He jumped in the pool and he made Time magazine," Raynor said. "He said, 'Next time I need good political advice, I'll ask you and do the opposite.' "

Schaefer pushed himself into the seal pool and countless other stunts because he thought they would give his city a badly needed boost, said Matthew A. Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

"For him that must have been really, really hard. He was always worried about making a fool of himself in public," Crenson said. "Here he had to go and do this crazy thing. It must have been excruciating for him. And yet he carried it off.

"He was a very complicated person, I think much more complicated than he appeared to the outside world. He started off as such a diffident politician that [West Baltimore political boss] Irv Kovens nicknamed him "Shaky." He never thought he was going to win. The other side was this fiercely confident advocate for Baltimore."

Crenson credits Schaefer with restoring the city's "sense of worth and confidence" — and creating a public image that was up to that task.

"He found a public persona that was different from his private self," Crenson said. "He became Baltimore. And in that role, he acquired a kind of forcefulness that he didn't have in his own personality."

Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas Ward, who served with Schaefer on the City Council, agreed that there were two Schaefers: the outrageous public figure and the timid private man.

"He was afraid to fly and traveled by train," Ward said. "On trips together, I never saw him gamble, drink, carry on or misbehave. He was essentially lonely. For all his publicity stunts, it's hard to believe he was essentially a shy guy."

It's one thing to overcome insecurity and reserve in order

to function in a line of work that requires glad-handing. It's another to make dressing up in silly costumes — at different times, he appeared as H.L. Mencken, Abe Lincoln and, to mock a Sun report on a loan bank dubbed his "shadow government," The Shadow — central to your political shtick. Why did Schaefer go all the way from shrinking violet to showman?

Helen Szablya, his assistant press secretary in City Hall and later state Human Resources spokeswoman, said that was the only way Schaefer could stand out amid the colorful politicians of his era.

"[City Comptroller]

Hyman Pressman never, ever got in front of a podium without reciting a poem," Szablya said. "There was [Councilman] Mimi DiPietro, who was this straight-out-of-the-movies, central casting — he was just a character. And he would say whatever was on his mind, and it was never politically correct. [State Comptroller] Louis Goldstein, who had coins made for him that said, 'God bless you all real good.' People had a style about them. Schaefer really did."

But not at first. Schaefer came into public life withdrawn and unsure of himself, said Joan Burrier, who met him when he was first elected to City Council and she was assistant director at Citizens Planning and Housing Association. Burrier, whose last name at the time was Bereska, was Schaefer's chief of staff when he became mayor.

"He was very introverted," Burrier said. "He has never ever been a good speaker. And the orators on the council at the time were Jacob Edelman and Solomon Liss" — two of his colleagues in the old 5th District.

Schaefer always felt out of place as a member of the district team, which Burrier said had "three Jewish councilmen … and one sorta WASP, which was Schaefer. He was always odd man out."

As an advocate for cracking down on slumlords, Schaefer was out of step with the council as a whole.

"A lot of slumlords had contacts in the council," Burrier said. "I would write legislation for him, he would introduce it into the council and the vote would always be 20-1 [against]."

Schaefer's appearance, which Burrier characterized as nerdy, didn't help.

"He dressed kind of, sort of, preppy and always wore a hat of some sort, but he always tied his tie too short," she said.

His temper hurt him, too.

"When he would stand up to speak in the council, Schaefer would often lose his temper," she said. "And when he got angry, sometimes he would lose his train of thought and often, I tell you, people would laugh at him."


But what Schaefer lacked in confidence, he made up for in stubbornness.


"He kept pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing and they would beat him and beat him and beat him and beat him," Burrier said. "Finally, he got a few things through. … As an only child, a spoiled only child, he was used to having his own way, and that's the way he came into government."

Schaefer grew up in a two-story brick rowhouse on Edgewood Street and lived there with his widowed mother as an adult. When making his first run for City Council, he couldn't scrape up the $200 the Board of Elections charged for a list of registered voters in the district. Raynor, who worked there, lent him a list.

His first campaign for mayor started out so strapped for cash that staffers had to bring their own light bulbs to headquarters.

"Everybody thought he was nothing when he came into office, that he was just going to be a half-assed

bum," Burrier said. "They didn't think he was polished enough, that he spoke well enough, that he knew his way around well enough."

Inwardly, Burrier said, Schaefer feared the same thing.

"He had to get into a world of the high flyers, the money men, the society people," she said.

But Schaefer never publicly betrayed his doubts. He used bravado to cover all that up.

"He never, ever could remember anybody's name, so he called women little girls and men he would call boys," Burrier said. "He would say, 'Listen, boy.' He'd be talking to the head of BGE and say, 'Boy, I want you to help me with this.'"

And the more he faked it, the more confident he became.

"He found his way," Burrier said. "And I think the more he bullied people, the more his confidence grew, until he was all-powerful as a mayor."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article

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