Schaefer was the neighborhood mayor

If you lived in Baltimore in the 1970s, it seemed that William Donald Schaefer paved every alley. An exaggeration? Yes. But then, as now, old Baltimore needed a lot of fixing and Schaefer was in his neighborhood mode. He did it well and had the support of some pretty amazing people. He listened to his aides and he also obsessed over letters his constituents mailed him.

I recall one night after a City Council meeting when his housing and development chief, Bob Embry, was having dinner at the old Horn and Horn restaurant on Baltimore Street. Embry bounced a new idea: The city would take over and run the Mechanic Theatre, which had shut down and appeared doomed as a business enterprise.

Months after Schaefer approved the plan, the stars of "A Chorus Line" and other Broadway shows piled on a Metroliner train and appeared at a packed ballroom at the downtown Hilton. Before a sales campaign was over, 23,000 people had bought Mechanic subscriptions.

Embry reminded me after Schaefer died this week that Schaefer was the city councilman who championed the idea of a City Fair, a place where neighborhoods could showcase themselves in a downtown that was in the process of being renewed. Embry and the able Sandy Hillman and Hope Quackenbush worked out what became, for a time, a fall tradition of civic boosterism that actually felt good.

Schaefer was also the mayor who just showed up. I recall one day seeing him with his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, shooting up an escalator in the old downtown Stewart's department store on a busy Saturday. I wonder what they were buying. Certainly not clothes for him. He habitually wore a grayish raincoat that people in City Hall described as the color of a galvanized steel trash can. He lived in that raincoat.

Schaefer loved church social functions. Maybe it's another exaggeration, but seemed to show up at every church basement sour beef or oyster dinner, bazaar or rummage sale I knew. He was just there. It was a savvy political move, but I think he also actually liked Baltimore's curious foods, like the homemade candy confected of fondant rolled in cinnamon. We called them sweet potatoes.

Many of the recent news articles have omitted mention of one his greatest coups, the dollar house giveaways. Then, as now, Baltimore had scores of vacant houses. In the 1970s, many had been condemned and then taken over by the city using federal funds. Preservationists protested that Baltimore's history was being destroyed; Schaefer and Embry caught the sentiment and had whole neighborhoods of rowhouses sold in bulk. They were not afraid to supply new sidewalks and landscaping. People loved it: a plan that advanced the idea that middle-class people could live in or near the old downtown.

Schaefer also browbeat merchants to fix up neighborhood shopping districts. This was a more difficult task because retail was then tilting toward the huge outlets. But Schaefer tried with parking lots and new pavements and signs. It was just fun watching the do-it-yourself energy of it all.

Schaefer may have gone on to Annapolis to fulfill larger political aspirations, but I always felt he was at his most productive in Baltimore.

On the night of Sept. 12, 2006, I sat in the office of his pal Gene Raynor at the Board of Elections at Gay and Baltimore streets. For once in his career, Schaefer, running for re-election as comptroller, was in deep trouble with voters. He had battled with Anne Arundel County's Janet S. Owens, calling her Mother Hubbard. She said running for comptroller was like having to tell Grandpa it's time to give up the car keys. It wasn't pretty. The third candidate, Peter Franchot, said it was better to focus on issues.

That night, Schaefer appeared vulnerable. Raynor, a loyalist and intimate friend, knew Schaefer would have to win big in his beloved Baltimore to carry the state. It seemed like a sure thing.

Raynor selected three polling places where he had sources who would phone unofficial results as soon as the polls closed. All were in neighborhoods that Schaefer had once owned — Little Italy, Canton and Highlandtown. The calls came in and I watched Raynor wince as he mouthed the tallies. Schaefer was a disaster in Little Italy, he was third in Canton and last in Highlandtown. Raynor then picked up a cellphone and called a man named John, whom he later told me was John Paterakis, the H&S baker and political contributor. Raynor shook his head and said, "Hopeless." The long run was over.


Funeral information

Details for public services for William Donald Schaefer:

Schaefer will lie in state at the State House in Annapolis on Monday. The public is invited from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. His body will then be taken past several Baltimore sites that are part of his legacy, including Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium and the Inner Harbor.

The former mayor's body will be brought to Baltimore's City Hall to lie in state in the rotunda. The public is invited to pay their respects from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Funeral services will take place at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 233 N. Charles St. in downtown Baltimore. Schaefer will be entombed at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium after the funeral.

Source: Maryland Governor's Office

Recommended on Baltimore Sun