A statue of William Donald Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor, city council president, Maryland governor, and comptroller. The statue was created by sculptor Rodney Carroll and dedicated 18 months before Schaefer died. Photo courtesy of Maryland Governor’s Office.
A statue of William Donald Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor, city council president, Maryland governor, and comptroller. The statue was created by sculptor Rodney Carroll and dedicated 18 months before Schaefer died. Photo courtesy of Maryland Governor’s Office.

What started as a birthday celebration turned into a reunion of sorts for former aides, lieutenants and colleagues of William Donald Schaefer, the legendary Maryland politician and Baltimore booster who would have turned 100 on Nov. 2.

Among the nearly 100 people who gathered inside the Maryland Science Center yesterday were many who worked with Schaefer during his years as Baltimore City Council president, mayor, governor and comptroller.

Nancy Grasmick; Lainy LeBow Sachs; Sandy Hillman; Mark Wasserman; Robert Douglas; Mike Golden; Paul Schurick; Rochelle “Rikki” Spector; and Dean Kenderdine were a few of the “alumni” who gathered to sing Happy Birthday and cut a birthday cake in honor of Hizzoner.

Gov. Larry Hogan started the celebration by proclaiming Nov. 2, 2021 “William Donald Schaefer Day” in Maryland.

“William Donald Schaefer was in many ways Maryland’s gift to the country,” he said. “With his Do-It-Now philosophy, he was very passionate about big infrastructure projects like the one we’re sitting in right now. He was just as passionate about fixing a broken streetlight or making sure that someone’s trash was picked up…The most important thing we can say about him is that he cared deeply about regular people, that he truly enjoyed being out in the community. He once said there’s only one job for a politician, and that’s to help people.”

Events such as the Schaefer celebration “really are an antidote to the toxic politics and all of the divisiveness and dysfunction that we see today in politics,” Hogan added.

“William Donald Schaefer lived and breathed Baltimore,” said current Mayor Brandon Scott. He “loved Baltimore with all his heart and soul…He remains the yardstick for which every mayor since him is going to be measured on.”

Scott told the crowd he believes Schaefer’s spirit still haunts City Hall because he sometimes gets ghostly visits from him.

“I’m sure,” he said, “it’s he who visits me on Saturdays in the office when the elevator that requires a key just opens by itself.”

Nearly 100 people gathered on Tuesday to celebrate William Donald Schaefer, the political household name for many across Baltimore and Maryland. Among the celebrants were many people who worked with Schaefer during his years as Baltimore City Council president, Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and comptroller. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Organized by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore, the afternoon event was originally scheduled to take place at Schaefer’s sculpture on the west shore of the Inner Harbor but was moved indoors because of rain.

Richard Sher was the master of ceremonies. Mask-wearing guests took selfies and group photos and caught up with each other before gathering to hear remarks by Hogan; Scott; City Council President Nick Mosby; Comptroller Peter Franchot and others.

The speakers recalled Schaefer’s more than 50 years in public office, including periods as a Baltimore City Council member (1955 to 1967); City Council president (1967 to 1971), Baltimore mayor (1971 to 1987), Maryland governor (1987 to 1995) and Maryland comptroller (1999 to 2007). That’s more than half of Schaefer’s life; he was born on Nov. 2, 1921 and died on April 18, 2011 at age 89.

Several said that even though Schaefer served as governor and comptroller, many will always remember him primarily as Baltimore’s mayor.

Scott said he had a chance to meet Schaefer when he was a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Schaefer, who was on the board of trustees, somehow knew he was from Baltimore.

“He said, ‘You better come home to help,’ ” Scott recalled. “That was the only thing he said. I took it very seriously because he pointed that finger at me.”

Like Hogan, Scott proclaimed the day “William Donald Schaefer Day” in Baltimore.

“No disrespect Governor, but to us here in Baltimore, he will always be mayor,” Scott said. “We know Baltimore, and being mayor, is what he loved the most. His never-ending energy brought hope to a city that was rocketed by unrest and the structural impact of inequality that he worked to tear down. He knew what Baltimore had been and he wanted all of us to join in believing in what Baltimore could be…It was he who thought that we could have something better.”

Scott gave Schaefer credit for making Oriole Park at Camden Yards as distinctive as it is by incorporating the historic B&O Warehouse. “It was he, Mr. Governor, who said ‘No, we shouldn’t tear down the warehouse at Camden Yards. We should leave it up. It’s going to change baseball stadiums forever.’”

Franchot, who succeeded Schaefer as comptroller, said Schaefer “had no use for me,” often referring to him dismissively as “a nice boy.”

Describing Schaefer as “authentic,” “a real person,” and “a real American leader…who attracted excellent people around him,” Franchot said he now awards an annual William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award that he gives to residents in every county for “unbelievably immediate, Do-It-Now, concrete efforts to help people and help communities.” He also proposed that Nov. 2 be made a state holiday in Schaefer’s honor.

Mosby recalled that Schaefer lost his first two elections, when he ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in 1950 and 1954.

“He was 29, I believe, and 33” when he lost those races, Mosby said. “At that time, he could have decided to give up. He could have decided to take a different path because the voters in the city of Baltimore clearly did not want him two consecutive cycles. But he didn’t. He stayed committed to a craft that he wanted to do and he ran and he won that third time.”

Mosby said that persistence symbolizes “who he was and what he meant — not just for the city, not just for the state, but for the entire country. He was a man with vision and a man that, during tough times in his personal life and his professional life, he never gave up.”
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LeBow Sachs, Schaefer’s longtime top aide, recalled how Schaefer was impatient and didn’t want to spend much time with sculptor Rodney Carroll, posing for his statue, dedicated 18 months before he died.

“He did not want to sit for Rodney and he was grumpy and he hated it – how much longer, how much longer?” she said. “So finally, Rodney was very smart. He said, ‘I think we’ve had enough. He said to me, can you just get me his jacket from Joseph Bank and his tie clip that always said Baltimore and his polished shoes and I can take it from there. And that’s what he did, right? And he did such a magnificent job.”

The celebration capped a day-long program honoring Schaefer. It started in the morning with a virtual “memorial conference and awards ceremony” organized by the Schaefer Center and entitled: “Lessons from Transformational Leaders.”

The keynote speaker was Shanaysha M. Sauls, president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Other sessions featured former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, speaking about the “Pittsburgh Transformation,” and a panel discussion with Nancy Kopp, Maryland treasurer; Mary Ann Scully, chairman and CEO of Howard Bank; and Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, moderated by Beverly Burke. The 2020 William Donald Schaefer Award was presented to Sister Helen Amos, executive chair of the board for Mercy Hospital.

Starting at 1 p.m., a group called The Charm’tastic Mile collected flowers and cards to be placed at Schaefer’s statue. It also invited admirers to post greetings on social media with the hashtag #WDSHappy100thBirthday.

A tribute to William Donald Schaefer’s love of big birthday cakes, a celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday included this cake with chocolate icing. Photo courtesy of Maryland Governor’s Office.
A tribute to William Donald Schaefer’s love of big birthday cakes, a celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday included this cake with chocolate icing. Photo courtesy of Maryland Governor’s Office.

Schaefer was known for always wanting a big cake for his birthday and he got one yesterday at the Science Center – a cake with chocolate icing and three candles on top, spelling out 1-0-0.

After the prepared remarks, Douglas, a member of the advisory board of the Schaefer Center, announced the recipient of its 2021 William Donald Schaefer Award: former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

Besides Amos, past winners have included Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings; Grasmick, the former Maryland State Superintendent of Schools; Carolyn Colvin, former Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration; and U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

“There’s no question that William Donald Schaefer impacted my life significantly,” Smith said, in accepting his award. “He was an inspiration to me as he has been to so many people. This is really a grand reunion. You know, they talk about Schaefer loved the city. He loved the people who worked with him. Those people loved him… By the turnout here, 11 years after he passed and you get this many very talented, dedicated people who want to again celebrate him, they love him. And that mutual love had a huge impact on Baltimore, on Maryland and, frankly, in many parts of the country.”

Smith said it’s important not just to remember past leaders but to teach, support and encourage young people who will become the public service leaders of the future, and that’s what the Schaefer Center for Public Policy does.

“We’re not going to be here forever,” he said. “We’re going to pass. He did. As big as he is, he had to pass. And as good as we try to be, we’ve got to pass. But we want to pass on to the succeeding generation the opportunity to have the same fulfillment, the same satisfaction that we enjoyed, much of it as a result of the inspiration and the collaboration with William Donald Schaefer.”

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

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