The hero of Baltimore

Baltimore's favorite son, greatest cheerleader and most irascible politician is gone.

By any measure, William Donald Schaefer, who died Monday at age 89, was an extraordinary man. Sixteen years on the Baltimore City Council, 15 as the city's mayor, eight as Maryland governor and another eight as comptroller — few have had as much impact in shaping the city and state.

He could be demanding, testy, mercurial, insufferable really. His mantra was "do it now," and he didn't mean next week or even the next day. As much as he appreciated publicity, he didn't always care for the reporters and editors who covered him — and wasn't shy about saying so. The salute he offered many of them required only one finger.

But he was also that rare elected leader who could inspire those around him to push themselves beyond their limits. He cared passionately about his native city and about the lives of average, working-class people, the kind of folks he grew up with, and for the less fortunate.

Want to hear a Don Schaefer anecdote? Just knock on most any door in most any city neighborhood and find someone who was here in the 1970s, when Mr. Schaefer led the revitalization of Baltimore. Back then, he seemed to be on a first-name basis with most of the city.

The hotels and tourism attractions of the Inner Harbor, including the Baltimore Convention Center and the National Aquarium? They exist because of him. Same with the downtown stadiums. Without his efforts, there would be no Baltimore Ravens, his atonement for the departure of the NFL's Colts to Indianapolis during his watch.

Governor was never his favorite job — Mr. Schaefer said so often enough — nor was it a particularly comfortable fit, despite his many successes. Certainly, he loved to build things, from his "Reach the Beach" bridges along U.S. 50 on the Eastern Shore to Baltimore's light rail system. But when it came to dealing with an often balky General Assembly over his legislative agenda, that was about 188 more chefs than he wanted making the broth.

His honor tried retirement, but it fit him about as well as a size 7 cap on his size 73/4 bald head. In 1998, he was elected comptroller, another imperfect fit. But he learned to make the most of his role as the state's tax collector — even if it meant being the thorn in then-Gov. Parris Glendening's side at Board of Public Works meetings.

To outsiders, Mr. Schaefer might have seemed a little wacky, a refugee from a different era of machine politics and backroom deals. He famously took a swim with the seals in vintage swim gear when the aquarium wasn't finished on time. He once declared war on the legislature. He sent more than a few nasty notes to his critics. He sometimes endorsed Republicans for office.

In his final years as comptroller, he proved a shadow of his once-formidable self. And on a few occasions — most famously, when he jokingly asked a female aide to "walk again" so he could watch her from behind — he found the public no longer laughing with him. He lost his last election, the 2006 Democratic primary for comptroller, largely because of that incident.

At 89 and living in a nursing home, he had outlived many of his contemporaries at City Hall. One has to wonder: Do young people appreciate the impact Mr. Schaefer had on this city, or will he be recalled — if they recall him at all — merely as that curmudgeonly, gaffe-prone comptroller?

Yet generations of Baltimoreans will always be in Mr. Schaefer's debt for the renaissance he brought to Charm City and his Herculean efforts to keep it afloat and vital despite a rising tide of poverty, crime and drugs. Those who saw him in action understand what made him tick and that certain spark of genius in how he made things happen.

As mayor and governor, he thought big and was never fully satisfied with the status quo. He was the antithesis of the 21st century politician, neither telegenic nor a particularly gifted speaker or even talk-show guest.

Indeed, his public speeches are still remembered best for their butchered syntax. Sometimes, he'd just drop favorite phrases with barely a connective word or transition between them. Yet he was at his intuitive best when he spoke from his heart as an average Joe, recalling difficult choices he had to make or pushing those around him to do more and do it better.

He kept his private life largely private. He was obviously devoted to his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, who passed away 12 years ago, but they never married. When he served as governor, she was given the title of the state's official hostess. He rarely spoke publicly of his family.

This much is certain: The man some called "Mayor Annoyed" will be missed on the banks of the Patapsco River and far beyond. He was one of a kind — a Charm City original — both a master politician and a sometimes-difficult human being.

A word of advice to Saint Peter: Better make sure those pearly gates are gleaming. Your latest arrival is likely to notice — and you don't want to get on his bad side.