The years go by, and the late William Donald Schaefer remains the ultimate measure of all mayors of Baltimore. It’s been 32 years since he left City Hall, but the “Do It Now” cry remains indelible – and elusive.
Have you been to Harborplace lately? The two pavilions are ghostly shadows of their former selves, and nobody in power seems to care. When Schaefer was mayor, it was considered the heart of the city’s psychological and economic renaissance.
And yet …
On the big day it was opened, Schaefer said a few words and quickly retreated to his office, where his aide, Lainy Lebow-Sachs, found him. He was already buried in his work, while many tens of thousands were just getting started celebrating the grand opening.
Lebow-Sachs asked, “What are you doing here? You should be out taking bows.”
“Nope,” Schaefer said, barely looking up. “That’s old business now. Got new work to do.”
Have you seen the garbage strewn around major areas of the city? This was the essence of Schaefer – cleaning up all trash from streets and schoolyards, filling every pothole, removing every abandoned car from the streets.
He’d call some bureaucratic chief and holler, “I just saw an abandoned car. Get it off the street.”
“Where is it?” the poor chief would reply.
“That’s for you to find out,” Schaefer would say. If the works crews looked hard enough, they might find a bunch of them out there, and remove them all.
Schaefer saw the city as a reflection of himself. Sully it, and you sullied him. Insult the city, and you endured Schaefer’s wrath.
You think Baltimore’s got problems today? Schaefer inherited a city that had lost all heart. It was 1971, when all of us were still living in the shadow of the ’68 riots.
But Schaefer did something really smart. He lied like hell, and then he kept telling the same lie: “Baltimore is Best,” he lied. That became the city’s slogan, a kind of municipal mantra: Baltimore is Best. It was on all the bumper stickers and city benches. You say something long enough, and insistently enough, and people to start to believe it. And he built a rebirth around that slogan.
He championed the annual City Fairs and all those ethnic festivals we used to have. Every crowd carried an implicit, unspoken message: We’re mixing with each other. We weren’t just tolerating each other, we were celebrating some of our differences, learning to live with each other as we never had before.
Part of the magic was Schaefer surrounding himself with really smart people, like Bob Embry and Mark Joseph, and Wally Orlinsky and Clarence “Du” Burns, and Joan Bereska and Janet Hoffman, and Sandy Hillman and Hope Quackenbush.
But Schaefer was a one-man powerhouse when he needed to be. One time, he went to Washington to meet with Richard Nixon’s HUD secretary, George Romney. Schaefer wanted federal development money. Romney tried to stiff him.
“You don’t understand what’s going on in cities,” Schaefer cried. Romney, this straight-laced patrician, couldn’t believe his ears. Who on earth would speak this way to a presidential cabinet member? Romney tried yelling back. So Schaefer upped the ante, and the decibels.
“You sit here and pretend to care,” he hollered. He wasn’t just the mayor then. He was this royally ticked-off crazy man, up from the streets of scruffy Bawlamer, tired of hearing excuses from heartless powerbrokers controlling all the big money. By the end of it, Schaefer and Romney were calling each other nasty names.
Driving back to Baltimore, Schaefer was certain he’d blown it, that Romney would withhold all federal funds as personal slight. The whole City Hall contingent sank into a funk. But Romney understood the passion behind Schaefer’s bellowing – and he changed his mind on everything, and the city got money for several big development projects.
“The best days,” Schaefer said toward the end of his life, “was being mayor.” We sat in a little room as he reflected. “Only time I really enjoyed myself. Because you could help everybody, and everybody knew you. You went into the neighborhoods and saw the things being accomplished. You made people feel better about themselves.”
The years go by, and he’s still the ultimate measure of all mayors. Was he annoying, was he petulant, was intemperate? Yes, yes and yes. And he was the best we ever had, wasn’t he?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).