Donald Fry: William Donald Schaefer’s transformative impact

By Donald C. Fry

For Baltimore and Maryland, there is no more compelling example of the phrase “the right person, right place, and right time” than William Donald Schaefer.

Schaefer, who died last Monday, April 18, is deservedly remembered as the irascible, cantankerous, yet remarkable “do it now” leader who had a transformative impact on the city and state he served as mayor, governor and comptroller.

To truly appreciate the magnitude of that impact, it’s worth noting the context of the times in which Schaefer served – particularly the years that he was mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to 1986.

Schaefer had served on the Baltimore City Council since 1955 and had been elected its president in 1967. When he was elected mayor in 1971, he took the reins of a city that was in the fledgling stages of a downtown revitalization.

In the 1950s, the city faced a decaying central business district and a waterfront comprised of increasingly unused and deteriorating warehouses that had once been the city’s commercial hub for produce and other goods transported to Baltimore via the Chesapeake Bay. In 1955 developer Jim Rouse spearheaded the creation of the Greater Baltimore Committee to focus business leadership and resources on finding solutions to problems affecting the city and region.

By 1971 the Charles Center revitalization, driven by the GBC Planning Council, was well underway in the central business district. The area around the Inner Harbor had been cleared, thanks to a 1968 federal grant for demolition, but was still nowhere near being a place where anyone would want to spend much quality time.

Baltimore City had begun its revitalization, but it was still in the process of figuring out how to negotiate the journey from the rust belt to the future.

Through the sheer force of his leadership – punctuated by impatience, incessant prodding, and an occasional full-blown tantrum – Schaefer took a post-demolition expanse of vacant and still largely unused land around and near the waterfront and put Baltimore’s rebirth into overdrive.

Schaefer was the catalyst for much of the major development that gained national attention as Baltimore’s “renaissance” in which the GBC, working with Schaefer, played a key role and which is a continuing focus of the GBC.

Many view the July 2, 1980 opening of Rouse’s Harborplace as the event that characterized the Inner Harbor’s dramatic transformation from derelict docks to a world-class attraction. However, Schaefer also presided over an extraordinary decade of construction in the harbor area that preceded the opening of Harborplace.

Buildings that opened in or near the Inner Harbor in the 1970s included the USF&G Building (1973), the IBM Building (1975), the Garmatz federal courthouse (1976), the Maryland Science Center (1976), C&P Telephone Company headquarters (1977), the World Trade Center (1977), and the Baltimore Convention Center (1979).

The Harborplace opening was followed by the openings in 1981 of the National Aquarium and the Hyatt Regency. It triggered a 30-year period of development downtown and eastward along both shores of the harbor that continues today.

As governor, Schaefer subsequently presided over the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, legislative approval of a football stadium, and the creation of the Baltimore region’s light rail line. The first two sections of Baltimore’s metro subway were built during his tenures and mayor and governor.

Schaefer turned to business leaders for support early and often along the way. When Schaefer took office, business leaders “thought they could use him, but in the end they got used – and loved every minute of it,” writes C. Fraser Smith in his biography of Schaefer.

Schaefer always had the next big project in mind, but he won the hearts of Baltimore’s citizens for his ability to also focus on the details in the city’s neighborhoods and to fix things, ranging from potholes to uncollected trash. No one ever questioned Schaefer’s passionate dedication to helping people and his penchant for listening and fixing.

Schaefer’s legendary irascibility was counterbalanced by a passion for helping constituents and by his fierce loyalty to staffers, colleagues, and long-time friends.

He was a close and loyal friend of Rouse and long-time GBC senior advisor Walter Sondheim who, during Schaefer’s tenure as mayor, had served as chairman of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, Inc. the nonprofit organization charged with managing downtown and waterfront redevelopment.

Schaefer described Sondheim as a man of “integrity, absolute, total integrity.” Sondheim often used the same words to describe Schaefer who, among other things, always remembered Sondheim’s birthday. Long-time GBC staffers recall hearing Schaefer’s voice booming his rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Sondheim on his speaker phone in his GBC office.

Schaefer was also known for his role as Baltimore’s cheerleader. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley notes that Schaefer’s cheerleading was aimed as much to audiences within the city as to external audiences.

Schaefer served to counter Baltimore’s tendency toward “pathological modesty,” O’Malley observed in a WBAL Radio interview this week.

“We are very quick to be down on ourselves. William Donald Schaefer wouldn’t have any of that. He was a person who believed that Baltimore was a tremendous city, was a strong city, was a city that was a great and world-class city,” O’Malley said. “He gave us that pride, that bounce in our step.”

For all of his quirks and his famous mercurial temperament, William Donald Schaefer continually demonstrated for us the key qualities of exceptional leadership – compelling vision, passion, empathy, resourcefulness, courage to do the right thing, and unquestioned integrity.

These are timeless lessons that are worth remembering, celebrating and emulating.

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