When Kim Schatzel arrived from Michigan to take her post as Towson University’s president in 2016, one of the first people she met was Donald C. Fry, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee. The meeting proved fortuitous. Not only because he served on the school’s advisory board but because he was able to offer her advice, educate her about the political terrain and introduce her to dozens of prominent figures in the Baltimore area. Her status as newcomer lasted all of about five minutes. With Don on her speed dial, her phone was a lifeline to anybody who was anybody in the Baltimore region — and especially its corporate and nonprofit community.
“If I’m looking for advice, I call Don,” Dr. Schatzel insists. “He always makes time and he’s a problem solver and a difference maker. He’s just deeply connected to the success of the region and this state.”
Lisa Harris Jones had a similar experience. When she was starting up her own law firm focused on government relations, lobbying and procurement two decades ago, she talked to Mr. Fry, a former state legislator who was GBC vice president at the time. He suggested she get involved with his organization, signing the GBC up as one of her first clients; that, in turn, helped her land some of her biggest accounts. Today, she’s one of the highest earning lobbyists in Annapolis.
“This is just who he is. He has a good heart,” she says. “He’s the definition of a good person. And he loves Baltimore City, he cares about Baltimore City, he’s shown that through the years.”
Who could have predicted that a 1973 graduate of Bel Air High School would grow up to play such a vital role in the Baltimore region’s most prominent business and civic leadership group? Well, maybe there were a few signs in those formative years. Like an early interest in history, government and politics. He was floor manager for a mock national political convention in 7th grade. And as a freshman at what is now Frostburg State University (where he was student government president, naturally), he wrote an essay setting out a career goal that he would get his degree, a law degree and then run for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates by the time his graduating class held their 10th reunion. He was off by three years, having been elected to represent Harford County in 1990.
In the General Assembly, he proved himself a problem solver. He served on a number of Appropriations subcommittees in the House before his appointment to the state Senate where he served on the Budget and Taxation Committee. He quickly earned subcommittee chairmanships. He was a quick study, a smart budget negotiator and, to use the parlance of legislating, more of a workhorse than a show horse. He was, however, not to last as Harford County turned increasingly Republican. The Democrat lost his Senate bid in 1998. And as his general law practice was not his passion as it once was, it was then that the Greater Baltimore Committee beckoned.
“A lot of people think the GBC is just another chamber of commerce,” says Robert Neall, the former state health secretary and Anne Arundel County executive who served in the state legislature with Don. “It’s much more than that. They work on transportation, crime and social issues. That makes Don one of the vital pieces of social fabric for the region. He’s really the prototype of what The Sun’s Business and Civic Leaders Hall of Fame is about.”
Eventually taking the handoff from a fellow Don to run the organization — former Baltimore County Executive Don Hutchinson who served as CEO until 2002 — Mr. Fry discovered new ways GBC could have impact helping the region nurture economic growth and job creation. He brought together local economic development directors and business leaders; the resulting 2010 “Gaining a Competitive Edge” report is still often quoted as a thoughtful call for such measures as a fair tax system that does not target any single industry, government that sees the business community as a partner and creating a reliable source of funding for transportation infrastructure.
Today, his focus like many others connected to Baltimore is to reduce violent crime, and he supports the crime prevention strategy Baltimore is now pursuing. He was disappointed by the cancellation of the Red Line (a “body blow,” he says). The east-west light rail line was a project the GBC strongly advocated. But he still sees numerous opportunities for growth taking advantage of Baltimore’s assets like its convenient location; the region’s highly education workforce; and its strengths in technology, construction, business services and health care. Add to that a willingness in the business community to work hard to create a more diverse and equitable work environment, and his forecast is positive.
“No one has all the answers, but by working together, we can find solutions to problems,” he says. “Some of those conversations can be difficult. We won’t always agree. But you can have disagreements and still make your point in a constructive manner.”
Disagreeing without being disagreeable, that’s the Don Fry mantra that served him well in Annapolis and for 20 years at the Greater Baltimore Committee as its second longest serving president in history. For the record, it’s going to take six more years to break the record. Don’t bet against it.
Donald C. Fry
Hometown: Bel Air
Current residence: Bel Air
Education: Bel Air High School; B.S. in political science, Frostburg State College; J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law
Career highlights: Private law practice in Harford County; Maryland delegate (1991-1997); Maryland senator (1997-1998); Greater Baltimore Committee executive vice president and general counsel; GBC president and CEO (2002-present)
Civic and charitable activities: Chair, United Way Capital Campaign; Henry A. Rosenberg Sr. Distinguished Citizen Award (Boy Scouts of America); chair, Hire One Youth; chair, Journey Home Gala; board of directors, United Way of Central Maryland; member, R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Board
Family: Wife, Bonnie Fry; one son