Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Wind Beneath his Wings
I always say that, here in Baltimore, we have politicians like nowhere else has politicians. The good and the bad, the smart and the nonsmart, the honest and the crooked, the young and the restless, all of them have been here.
But clearly, there ain't another like William Donald Schaefer, who served as city councilman, mayor of Baltimore, governor of Maryland and State comptroller over fifty years in public service. He was a single guy who was almost literally married to his job. Riding around the city as mayor, he would spot trash on a street corner, a dilapidated-looking structure, or even incipient criminal activity, and then dash off "action memos" to the heads of the Sanitation, Housing, or Police departments as the case might be. And things would be taken care of, expeditiously. He made regular appearances on the call-in show on the local AM radio blowtorch, and citizens could call him to report traffic lights being out, abandoned cars on parking lots or brothers-in-law needing honest work, and in a trice, the light would be fixed, the car would be towed, and the brother-in-law would be on the sweeper truck crew.
He had his faults, if any Democrat can be said to have faults (someone take Jeff's blood pressure now, please!) He was often intemperate of tongue, speaking disparagingly of people who did not seem to share his vision of a state without flaws. He was short of temper and was known to show up at the door of a citizen who had written letters of complaint about his intemperate tongue. But most people just regard him as their lovable, if somewhat cranky, old uncle who liked things his way, and that was that.
I bet he loved "Gran Torino."
I once wrote to him concerning my complaints about the name of one of Maryland's 23 counties being misspelled at the equestrian barn at the State Fair. The fairground operators were profoundly unmoved at my importuning, but one letter to the governor got me "Allegany" on the wall and a letter from hizzoner thanking me for my devotion to getting things right...and an invitation to his upcoming inauguration.
Not long after he was turned out of office in his bid for reelection as comptroller, I was delivering my mom and a carload of her friends to a restaurant - they have one in every town, the kind of restaurant where, if you are 63 years of age, they call you "kid." You know the place? Well, Mr. Schaefer parked his car and was walking slowly and sadly into the place, head down and looking so forlorn. I sprang into action. I skittered to his side as he approached my car, and said, "Governor, if you have a second, I have a car full of good Democratic ladies who would love to say hello to you!"
It was like turning on a light switch. He beamed. I beamed. All the ladies beamed, bringing the total of beamers to six. They regaled him with stories of this one who went to City College in 1937, and that one who joined the Army and served with Jimmy from down the street, and the time the highway flooded out, and he went on about how good the chow was inside and my mother said that his long-time escort, Hilda Mae Snoops, was buried very close to where my father is enjoying his well-deserved eternal rest, and they hugged and wept and dabbed and reminisced. And I noticed something. This man lives for his job and the people, and being out of politics was like taking a bird out of the sky. Just four women to chatter with for a few minutes on a sunny Sunday was all it took to put the air back under him.