When Robert C. Embry Jr. left Baltimore for college, he almost didn’t come back. He thought he would go into the foreign service (and was recruited at Williams College for the CIA), and he went so far as to study the Middle East in graduate school at Harvard. But somewhere along the way, he looked around at his classmates at Harvard Law and concluded that he was not unique, that there were plenty of other people who could do the same things he could at the State Department, and that he could accomplish much more by coming home.
Those who have known Mr. Embry in the decades since would probably dispute the idea that he could fail to be unique in any circumstances. But the second part — that he had the ability to accomplish something special in Baltimore — is beyond debate. More than five decades after he decided to come home, it is as impossible to imagine him anywhere but Baltimore as it is to imagine Baltimore without him.Even the brief version of Mr. Embry’s contributions is staggering. Just months after he won a seat on the City Council, then-Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III recruited him to run the newly created Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.
“He is a class act,” Mr. D’Alessandro says. “He was very well versed in city affairs. I thought he would be the best guy for the new department.”
In that role, which he continued into the William Donald Schaefer administration, he was a driving force in the development of Charles Center, Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the City Fair, the convention center and the subway system. He was responsible for the dollar-house program and for Baltimore’s move away from high-rise public housing for families.
Mr. Embry then worked in urban development for the Carter administration, doing much the same thing on a national scale, then came back to Baltimore to team up with developer David Cordish, whom he had known since high school, to tackle complex urban redevelopment projects across the country.
He was serving as president of the city school board in 1987 when he started to flirt with a run for mayor. He opted against it, and another opportunity opened up. The previous year, the Black family had sold The Sun to the Times-Mirror Corp., and suddenly the assets of the A.S. Abell Company Foundation multiplied eight times over. Its trustees rechristened it the Abell Foundation and searched the country for a new executive director. Mr. Embry was among those they talked to in Baltimore to determine the focus the foundation should take, and he characteristically minced no words. The Sun made its money off the city, and that’s where the foundation that grew from it should be focused. Baltimore suffered from tremendous racial disparities, The Sun had an unfortunate history in that regard, and addressing that should be its central mission. The trustees offered him the job.
“We thought Bob offered the best prospect of helping to change the landscape,” says W. Shepherdson Abell, who chairs the foundation’s board. “He was imaginative and cut a pretty good figure in Baltimore.”
Mr. Embry, who had never thought about running a foundation, hesitated, but not for long.
“I said, it’s got you written all over it,” Mr. Cordish recalls. “You’ve been great here with us, but your heart is there.”
Mr. Abell says that he expected Mr. Embry to be aggressive in taking the initiative at Abell, and Mr. Embry did not disappoint. He got the foundation deeply involved in education, through both grants and policy work, supporting initiatives like College Bound and the Ingenuity Project and providing resources for the landmark, ACLU-led lawsuit over city schools funding. Abell worked on Baltimore’s chronic health problems like childhood asthma, lead paint poisoning and drug addiction. It tackled housing segregation and was a crucial player in litigation that has helped thousands of families who receive public housing vouchers to move to suburban neighborhoods with better schools and job prospects. If the first half of his career was focused on building up Baltimore physically, the second half centered on its human capital.
Mary Page Michel, an Abell trustee whose mother, the late Sally Michel, was a life-long friend and “intellectual soulmate” with Mr. Embry when it comes to improving the lives of Baltimoreans by combating the effects of racial discrimination and oppression, says what has set Mr. Embry’s tenure at the foundation apart is his willingness to take risks and “tell it like it is.”
For all his years at the center of Baltimore’s establishment, Mr. Embry maintains a contrarian streak that has proved invaluable, says the education advocate Kalman R. “Buzzy” Hettleman, a friend since the 1960s.
“He’s almost singular in his willingness to skewer sacred cows, “ Mr. Hettleman says. “I would call him a busybody or a mischief-maker in the best sense of both words. He has a never-ending curiosity and a willingness to do things in a different way.”
That goes not only for his prescriptions on how Baltimore should tackle its problems, from drug addiction to criminal justice, but for how he runs the foundation. In recent years, it has become a pioneer among foundations in direct equity investment – rather than putting all of its endowment in stocks and bonds, Mr. Embry has directed the foundation to invest in high-potential start-ups that do some good for mankind in Baltimore or those willing to move here. Not only has it provided the foundation with a good return but it has created more than 1,200 jobs locally.
“His creativity, his risk taking, his insight into the issues facing Baltimore are unique. He’s courageous and persistent, and his primary goal has been improving the lives of the less fortunate,” Ms. Michel says. “I can’t imagine what Baltimore would look like without him.”