William Donald Schaefer, 1921-2011

Like newspapers — I mean the print variety — politicians are news one day and fish wrap the next. That was not the case with William Donald Schaefer.
    On a Maryland scale, Schaefer was God in his heavens. We might not think of him everyday, but if we ignored him too long, the thunder would roar — and lightning might strike.
    So I got in the habit of reckoning his existence. When he was out of office between 1995 and 1999, I could feel his restlessness. After finishing two terms as governor, what would he do next? Might he run for a third, nonconsecutive term?
    So his ascension to the office of comptroller of Maryland — the apparent lifetime right of another grand old politician, Louis Goldstein, who died in office — seemed right and just.
    Bay Weekly welcomed him to the job with an article titled the Apotheosis of William Donald Schaefer and a drawing by artist Lali, showing a king’s crown held above his very large (as it was in real life) head [http://bit.ly/ehKNlI].
    Comptroller Schaefer did not disappoint, matching his efficiency on the job with peculiarity in public.
    I finally met and interviewed Schaefer in his last year in that job, 2006. I waited so long because I was over-awed and a little afraid.
    “No other politician touches our lives so intimately or with such power,” I wrote then.
    William Donald Schaefer was news throughout Bay Weekly’s 18-year lifetime so far of 926 issues — as he was long before we started printing papers in his state. At our arrival on the scene, in April of 1993, Schaefer was midway through his second term as governor.
    By then, he’d been mayor of Baltimore for 16 years — earning Best Mayor recognition from Esquire magazine in 1984 — and a Baltimore city councilman the previous 16. The façade of Baltimore we first got to know with its tourist-drawing showplaces — Harborplace, the Aquarium, Pride of Baltimore — was his creation.
    Mayor was his favorite job, he told me in that April, 2006, interview [http://bit.ly/ebge5l].
    “I couldn’t wait to wake up so I could go to work. I was so happy being mayor of the city, I thought I’d give the money back. That’s when you know you’re happy,” he told me.
    “Being single — I had no wife, no children, though I had a very nice girlfriend, Hilda Mae [Snoops] — I used to go around to the neighborhoods. No one knew when I was coming. I’d rap on doors, sit in the houses, have a cup of coffee. I’ve seen rooms where the roaches walked up one wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall.
    “The Inner Harbor was second to the neighborhoods. The big deal was the neighborhoods, and that paid off in pride.”
    Bill Burton — another grand old man who seemed eternal — made William Donald Schaefer the subject of his first Burton on the Bay columns for us back in 1993 [http://bit.ly/hHzYDQ]. The Guv, as Burton always called him, was pushing regulations to save blue crabs from our “insatiable appetite.”
    Taking controversial action, Burton wrote, “is nothing new for the battle-scarred guv, who has alternately roused our ire and our support for his various whims, brainstorms and sometimes downright logical paths of action.”
    In the tens of thousands of words I’ve read about William Donald Schaefer since his death April 18, none have suited him better.
    Burton minced no words in assessing Schaefer, but gruff affection mixed with the frankness that characterized both men. Just as both spoke plain English, both mastered the art of involvement with you.
    Back in 2006, I asked Comptroller Schaefer how showmanship fit into his political philosophy.
    “Make it a big deal,” he said. “People liked me jumping into the [National Aquarium] pool. They thought I was crazy at first, then they expected me to do something. We got publicity all over the world. Old fogies might not like it, but everybody else thought it was fun. We tried to make the city fun. We sold potholes, 425 of them. We sold sewers. We sold animals. A distant relative bought a giraffe and went to pick it up.”
    A less-tolerant electorate voted William Donald Schaefer out of office at the end of 2006. He’d occasionally raised my ire, but I voted for him every chance I got, and I mourned his loss — with him and for him.
    So I joined the thousands who trekked to the Maryland statehouse — and the streets of Baltimore — to bid him farewell as he lay in state. We were his family.
    As you do with family, I knew his birthday by heart. William Donald Schaefer died six and a half months shy of his 90th birthday, November 1.