It had to happen someday, and that day came yesterday. William Donald Schaefer, the amazing city councilman, mayor, governor and state comptroller, died at age 89.
This man was pure Baltimore, a fussbudget who was married to the city he loved, and a man whose motto was "Do it now!" He would ride around the city and fire off "action memos" to his staff when he saw something he didn't like fouling his city: trash, leaky hydrant, roving bands of thugs. And the next day the Public Works, Fire and Police Departments would be out there taking care of business. When he said to do it now, he meant not when it was convenient, and not the second Tuesday of next week. He meant, when you have something that needs doing, Just Do It! And the city got a lot better. He led the city back from its abyss, the 1968 riots. Great portions of the city were either abandoned or burned out, and then he came up with the idea of selling these abandoned townhouses for a dollar each, contingent upon the buyer fixing them up. Those houses today are worth three-quarters of a million of those dollars.
There's not a man or woman in this area who doesn't have a Don Schaefer story. My first one was back in the mid-70s; I was working as a DJ in town and our station was doing a remote broadcast from the City Fair, which was, as the name suggests, a downtown version of a state fair, except there was not a lot of livestock on display beyond the occasional fox or squirrel. Now, DJs like doing remotes about as much as John Boehner likes missing a tanning booth appointment. Your average DJ is happier hanging around the radio station in sloppy clothes, guzzling coffee and scratching himself as needed. Going to a remote adds all sorts of pressure: shaving, wearing presentable clothing...it's a nightmare. But I was there early that day and as the engineer rigged up all the equipment I thought I'd take a little snooze, so I tilted the folding chair back and sunned myself on an early September noon. Suddenly my reverie was disturbed by Hizzoner Himself, squawking at me as if I had been caught spraying graffiti on the Walters Art Museum.
"Hey look alive over there; this is the Baltimore City Fair and we're opening in a few minutes!" he barked. And I jumped right to it, yes I did.
My next story takes place during the sad interregnum in Schaefer's life. He served two terms as governor of Maryland, and then was unable to run again, so he sat it out for a couple of years before running for comptroller. One day during that time, I delivered my mom and three of her friends to the Peppermill Restaurant. No matter where you live, you have a restaurant like this in your town, the place where if you go there and you're 54 years of age, you are the youngest person by at least 20 years. Anyway, here's Mom and three other widows, and then along comes Schaefer, whose ride dropped him off by the front door. He looked sad and lonely, not being in the spotlight any longer. But! I darted over and said, "Governor? I have a whole carload of Democratic ladies right here and it would just make their day to shake your hand," and it was like I turned on a switch. He went over to the car, and one by one they piled out and shook the great man's hand. My Dad and Schaefer's longtime companion Hilda Mae Snoops are buried in the same cemetery up the road a piece, a fact that Mom and the Guv bemoaned weepily. He worked that crowd like the master he was...and he wasn't even running for anything! If you ever asked for a snapshot of a man truly in his element, that would be the one I'd think of. His whole school of politics was summed up in three words: "People, people, people." He loved them and he loved talking to them and hearing from them.
And then there was the time, while Schaefer was comptroller, that our local high school down the street was getting an addition built on, courtesy of some sort of educational grant overseen by WDS himself. But the sign in front of the school said "Maryland's Tomorrow...William Donald Schaffer, Comptroller."
Aghast at such a spelling error and the thought of impressionable youths streaming past it daily, thereby mislearning the name of the greatest politician this state will ever produce beside Martin O'Malley, I called the principal of the school, who gave me the standard pedantic runaround. At first he said I was wrong. Then I convinced him that he was wrong to think I was wrong about spelling the name of Schaefer. Then he said he didn't think it was worth the trouble to have someone change the sign. Then I said if he thought it was too much trouble, maybe I could share my thoughts with the comptroller's office and see with whom they agreed. At the very thought of receiving an excoriating phone call from WDS himself, the principal finally promised me to change the sign "tomorrow."
I couldn't help but pay tribute to the man. I said, "Do it now!"
Rest in peace, great one.