Photo by Ed Gunts.

Amid signs back in 1981 that construction of the National Aquarium might not be finished in time to meet its previously announced June 1 opening date, then-Mayor William Donald “Do It Now” Schaefer vowed that he and board chairman Frank Gunther Jr. would swim in the outdoor seal pool if the building didn’t open on schedule.

The aquarium did miss its opening, and Schaefer kept his promise, donning an old-timey bathing suit and clutching an inflatable rubber duck as he took a dip in the seal pool, going all the way under the water at one point.

In the process, he turned what could have been a black eye for the city into an upbeat promotional event that garnered free publicity for its new aquarium on front pages and TV screens around the world.

That moment on July 15, 1981, has now been captured in a large mural that’s on permanent display just inside the aquarium’s main entrance.

“Schaefer’s Splash” is the title of a 15-foot-wide by 6-foot-high oil painting that the aquarium’s leaders unveiled Thursday night before a crowd of supporters who’ve helped guide the institution since it opened, a little late, on Aug. 8, 1981.

Also in the crowd was Deborah Lee Walker, the original “mermaid” who joined Schaefer and Gunther in the seal pool, and who is depicted prominently in the mural. A former St. Pauli Girl model, now a bank teller and newspaper food columnist living in Ocean City, Walker said she was born in Baltimore and got the mermaid gig through her modeling agency. Last night she was treated like the star she was in 1981–except this time, she could walk.

“She was seen on the front page of so many newspapers across America with Mayor Schaefer,” said aquarium president and CEO John Racanelli, after pointing her out in the audience. “We’re so pleased that you could be here and not have to be carried in by frogmen this time.”

Painted by Maryland native Joseph Sheppard, the mural is a gift to the aquarium from the Dorothy and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr. Foundation. Henry Rosenberg, a longtime aquarium booster, said the Inner Harbor attraction has been a catalyst for much of the city’s subsequent redevelopment. “If it weren’t for the aquarium, a lot of other things wouldn’t be here in Baltimore,” he said.

The mural has Schaefer and the long-haired mermaid in the center, with Schaefer doffing a straw hat as Gunther and others look on. It also shows some of the buildings that were constructed along Pratt Street during Schaefer’s tenure and the nautical signal flag wall that helps the aquarium stand out in the harbor.

Sheppard said he studied newspaper photos of the seal pool swim to create the mural from his summer home in Pietrasanta, Italy, but he took artistic license to get the right angle, and he made it more of an indoor pool than an outdoor one. He also said he added different kinds of seals to supplement the less “picturesque” ones that actually were there and used his imagination when painting Gunther’s face because he didn’t have a good head shot from that year to work from.

William Donald Schaefer’s original bathing suit and hat, on display at last night’s mural unveiling. Photo by Ed Gunts.
William Donald Schaefer’s original bathing suit and hat, on display at last night’s mural unveiling. Photo by Ed Gunts.

The painting captures a characteristic Schaefer half-smile, and it shows him with a bit of a paunch and averting his eyes from the mermaid, who is bare-breasted–a departure from the day of the swim.

Participants for the unveiling event included Baltimore’s Ex-Officio Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young; State Sen. Sarah Elfreth; Baltimore City Council members Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and John Bullock; longtime Schaefer aides Lainy Lebow-Sachs and Mark Wasserman; former state school superintendent Nancy Grasmick; interior designer and Sheppard’s partner, Rita St. Clair; former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan; former Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts director Bill Gilmore; and Sideshow store owner Ted Frankel.

Also present were Carter Brigham and Parker Sutton, two daughters of civic volunteer and Schaefer confidante Sally Michel, who died last year and who was instrumental in creating a coveted poster of the seal pool swim.

Sheppard, who was born in 1930, noted this is the third time he has painted Schaefer, after creating portraits of him as both mayor (1971-1987) and governor (1987-1995). He also painted a portrait of Schaefer’s longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.

“I had known Mayor Schaefer as a friend… and Rita and I were very friendly with the mayor and Hilda Mae, so it was a wonderful opportunity to do this painting.”

Sheppard said he worked on the aquarium painting all last summer and is pleased with the location in a foyer on the ground floor of the original aquarium building on Pier 3, which he helped select.

“Everybody who comes in has to walk under it,” he said. “Everybody will see it.”

The gathering triggered much reminiscing by the guests, who treated it as a reunion. To spark memories, the aquarium displayed the vintage striped bathing suit that Schaefer wore during his swim, on loan from George Goebel of the A. T. Jones & Sons costume shop, and other mementos, including a desk-top “Schaefer fish.” The aquarium also showed a black and white newspaper photo of the actual event that could be compared with the mural.

Gunther, the aquarium’s first board chair, recalled Schaefer pledged to swim in the seal pool during a meeting of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and he was surprised when he heard the mayor say he was part of the promise. “I didn’t volunteer” to do it, Gunther said. “He volunteered me.”

His wife, Mary Ellen, recalled that no one really expected the swim to get the attention it did. “They just thought it was another Schaefer thing,” she said. “Then the [Associated Press] picked it up.”

The aquarium has attracted more than 53 million visitors since it opened. Racanelli, its president and CEO since 2011, said he believes it’s important to mark key moments from its past.

“I think the history of this institution is fascinating and meaningful,” he said, “and one of my jobs is to commemorate that.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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