Monday, April 18, 2011

William Donald Schaefer: RIP

William Donald Schaefer – former City Councilman, Council President, Mayor, Governor, and Comptroller – passed away tonight at the age of 89.

I suppose the news wasn’t terribly surprising given his age and failing health. Still, it was a poignant moment in that, for many Marylanders, Schaefer has been a constant fixture across our lives.

The man seemed to wear many personas comfortably. He was the cranky curmudgeon with a knack for courting and cursing the press. He was the autocrat who used fear to mobilize city bureaucrats prone to inertia. He was a man of duty who relinquished a job he loved to pursue one he wasn’t sure he wanted. He was kind, spiteful, melodramatic, serious, compassionate, outrageous, and authentic.  Some people said he was a little crazy. If so, it was definitely of the “like a fox” variety.

He understood the power of branding in politics long before it became common orthodoxy. He carefully positioned himself as the colorful, impatient, yet ultimately likeable city cheerleader and clown. By raising goodwill for himself, he built the political clout he needed to push through an ambitious agenda.  By jumping in that seal tank, Schaefer not only entertained the voters, but he made himself invulnerable to his political adversaries.

Like I said…crazy like a fox.

Occasionally I passed him in the halls of the State House (he was always very kind, even courtly). I was always a bit in awe of the man. He represented living history. He was a legendary mayor, maybe even one of the best in American history.  And, he personified his state like no one ever has, or likely will again.

When I was a junior at St. Paul’s School, he came to speak to one of our weekly assemblies. He was mayor at the time, and his visit coincided with unfolding controversy over a plan to put life preservers in stations around the Inner Harbor. The City Council supported the measure. Schaefer opposed it.

Schaefer gave a brief talk in which he encouraged the students to volunteer in the community, and then opened it up to questions. One of my classmates' questions zeroed in on the life preserver controversy. Exhibiting a kind of muted testiness befitting his audience, Schaefer reiterated his opposition, and pointed out the project’s cost.

“Well, isn’t saving lives worth the additional cost?” the student asked.

For once, Schaefer seemed at a loss for words.

Not long after that, Schaefer changed his position on the life preservers. When asked why, he cited his exchange with the student.  

To me, that episode revealed that, despite his bravado and legendary hardheadedness, Don Schaefer was not afraid to change his mind – an increasingly rare commodity in today’s politics.

Schaefer wrote his own epitaph: “He cared.” The fact is, when he cared, we cared. When he got mad about a government failing to serve the people, we got mad. When he cried when the Colts left Baltimore, we cried. And despite his occasional theatrics, we knew he meant it.

Agree or disagree with his politics, he devoted his life to service, and he served his city and state the best way he knew how.

In the end, that’s what matters the most.


  1. Excellent piece Richard.

  2. Those life preservers could have saved The Barber's shoe!

  3. You made me cry. Good job. 'cousin' Sarah

  4. I told my wife last night when we got the news: He may have been an old school, Democratic machine politician, but by God he loved this town, and everybody knew it.

    Not a bad epithet for a mayor.