Dan Rodricks

Appreciation: Carl Schoettler was a great newspaper writer, guru, mentor and friend

Long-time Sun reporter Carl Schoettler, who died this week, at his cluttered newsroom desk.
According to the records of The Baltimore Sun -- a repository for the work of hundreds of writers and photographers compressed into panes of microfiche in the newspaper’s library -- my initiation into the larger-than-life writing talent of Carl Schoettler occurred on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 1977 when he turned a moment from the corruption trial of the governor of Maryland into a Hemingwayesque short story.
And he did it on deadline at his desk in the old Evening Sun newsroom on the 5th floor of the Sunpapers building on Calvert Street.
The boyish and blondish Schoettler, reading glasses at the tip of his nose, hit the plastic keyboard hard, with the rhythmic and masculine flair of a conga player. He licked a finger to flip a page in a reporter’s notebook, then he hit the keyboard again, and back and forth like that. He had about 90 minutes to write the story, and everyone in the newsroom knew it, so no one bothered the man at work. But everyone near his desk snuck a peak in wonder.
Deadline writers talk about getting into a zone, when the words come in a rush. You concentrate, something like a batter trying to hit a fastball, and sentences form under your fingers, then paragraphs – or just “grafs” in deadline parlance – and pretty soon you’ve completed your assignment.
Many become skilled at writing or dictating clean news prose on deadline, and The Evening Sun had reporters who did that well. Schoettler did it with panache and literary style. As a feature writer, he seldom worked on hard, daily deadlines. But when he did – please, everyone, stand back!
That day, Schoettler had been sent to the big and still-new federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore to write a piece from closing arguments in the Marvin Mandel corruption trial. This trial, and the accompanying political soap opera, consumed the state for two years: A pipe-puffing governor and his associates charged with conspiring to rig legislation in Annapolis for their personal benefit.
There were actually two Mandel trials, the first ending in a mistrial. One of the defendants, Ernest N. Cory, a Laurel attorney, had gone broke paying for his defense in the first go-round. For the second trial, Cory had been assigned as counsel the federal public defender, Charles G. “Chuck” Bernstein. As the long Mandel trial came to an end, Bernstein gave a stellar closing argument to the jury, and Schoettler hot-stepped back to the Evening Sun newsroom to write about Bernstein’s summation.
It was one of the hundreds of Schoettler stories I remember well because it was a great read -- vivid, with descriptions of Bernstein and his physical approach to the jury, generous quoting of the attorney, a touch of pathos, a touch of humor -- and I had watched the whole thing happen, from Schoettler’s frantic note-taking in the courtroom to the deadline writing in the newsroom.
‘“Charles G. Bernstein made going broke seem like a good idea,” Schoettler wrote, referring to the quality of the defense Cory had received for free.
Schoettler contrasted the stiff, silent Cory with the younger, passionate attorney assigned to his defense: “Mr. Cory listened carefully, a lawyer judging the performance of another lawyer. He’s a tight-lipped, square-jawed man with the good color of a line officer in an infantry regiment.”
At recess, Cory turned to his wife in the courtroom gallery, smiled and nodded approval, as he should have, Schoettler wrote: “The public had given him one very fine defender.”
And that’s not even Schoettler’s best stuff. I note it because of my personal memory of being there at the story’s creation.
An anthology of his best work is in order; his stories about the people of Baltimore constitute a local treasure.
Carl Schoettler was a newsroom guru, a mentor and inspiration to young writers. He was a vociferous reader who introduced me to the work of Nelson Algren, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino. He also pointed the way to the films of Lina Wurtmuller, the bandoneon playing of Astor Piazzolla, the music of Miles Davis and Nina Simone, the culinary skills of Morris Martick, the paintings of Grace Hartigan and Raoul Middleman, and the Fells Point of Charlie Newton and Edith Massey. He loved Baltimore’s bohemians, the horse trainers and railbirds at Pimlico, old tailors and cobblers, boxers and strippers, painters and sculptors and the well-read managers of bookstores.
I could pick any Schoettler story from the archives and find a nice turn of phrase, a little poetry.

Here’s what he wrote of the paintings of Harry Evans Jr.: “He walked the streets of Baltimore for 40 years recording the cityscape with an enduring affection, a careful attention to historical detail and an uninhibited pallette. He saw the city with a generous, magic eye. He splashed the drabbest Baltimore street with colors as brilliant as a tropical sunset. He loved to paint a long block of rowhouses -- say ‘East Pratt Street near Central Avenue’ -- stretching toward infinity in a blaze of purples, reds, violets, greens and yellows lush as a bank of bougainvillea.”

Here’s an excerpt from a slice-of-life piece about the driver of a No. 10 MTA bus: “The sky over the city looks as dark and gray and uninviting as cold oatmeal, the temperature's about 20, ice and slush are underfoot everywhere, and Denise Butler hits the street with a smile on her face and a lilt in her voice. She's a Baltimore bus driver whose rare good humor and unexpected streetwise patter make her bus a rolling haven for beleaguered riders.”
Here’s what he wrote about an African-American Jewish congregation in East Baltimore: “Sabbath morning at Beth HaShem -- the house of God -- begins as it has for thousands of years in grand temples and simple shuls from Jerusalem to Bialystok to Baltimore. But here, all the worshipers are African-Americans, who face the double-barreled question of whether they are really Jewish from some white Jews and why they are Jewish at all from some blacks.”

Carl Schoettler was a sweet and modest fellow, but he was a tough guy, too, known as “the Messerschmitt ” to editors who dared to change his prose without discussion. He was an ardent supporter of the newspaper union and Baltimore’s Jonah House community, founded by Philip Berrigan and his wife, Liz McAlister.

Baltimore was fortunate to have such a talented newspaper writer for so long, chronicling the lives of artists and activists, the eccentrics who made the city so peculiar. I feel lucky to have been in his company so much, to call him mentor and friend.
We worked together on some stories.
Schoettler and I went to Puerto Rico to cover the search for the survivors of the Pride of Baltimore after it sank in a storm in 1986.
On a Sunday in October 1991, the Evening Sun sent us to Memorial Stadium to cover the final game of the Orioles there. Carl was to write a feature. I was to write my Monday column off the stadium farewell. We conferred to avoid redundancy in what we covered.
I went out to the “Here” flag beyond the left field bleachers, where Frank Robinson had hit his famous out-of-the-park home run in May 1966. That allowed me to ruminate on the sense of “here” Memorial Stadium had provided a generation of Baltimore baseball and football fans. I wrote something Schoettleresque that day and felt pretty good about it.
But, of course, Carl was the master, and I’ll never forget -- can almost recite from memory -- the passage from his piece on the post-game ceremony, when so many retired Orioles emerged from the dugout and took their positions on the field:

"The whole of the Orioles last day in Memorial Stadium had the tone of a family reunion. Nostalgia washed over everything like the crisp autumn sunshine that broke through murky clouds about the third inning. Fifty thousand fans stood up and roared when Brooks Robinson trotted out to third base, the first of the Orioles in the post-game ceremonies. He flicked a ball into his glove with a gesture as familiar as your father's touch, your brother's arm across your shoulder."