Mikulski offers tribute to Walter Sondheim

The following tribute to GBC Senior Advisor Walter Sondheim Jr. was inserted into the Congressional Record on March 5 by U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski:

Mr. President, I wish to pay tribute to one of Baltimore’s great civic leaders, Walter Sondheim, Jr. If ever there was a statesman from Baltimore, it was Walter Sondheim. From the time I entered public life in 1971, his name was synonymous with integrity, public purpose and civic leadership, and he was the most self-effacing public figure I ever met.

Perhaps Walter Sondheim’s most unique talent was his ability to manage transitions. Whether in business, in the community or in his own personal life, Walter knew when to hold them and when to fold them. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Walter recognized the evolution in Baltimore’s economic base from heavy industry and manufacturing to tourism, service and technology. He championed a new vision of public land use and architectural excellence when he shepherded the Renaissance of Baltimore and the creation of the present day Inner Harbor. He challenged the business community to look forward and prepare for the service economy and the explosion of technology related businesses that was being driven by our major universities and federal scientific facilities.

In the larger community, Walter Sondheim led us from the darkness of
Page: S2595 GPO’s PDF segregation and into the vision illuminated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Where other communities hesitated or procrastinated, as president of the Board of School Commissioners for Baltimore City, he forged ahead to implement this milestone ruling long before other cities around the Nation. The result was a speedy, thoughtful, considered integration of the public schools.

In his own personal life, Walter Sondheim transitioned from his early life as a businessman with one of Baltimore’s premiere department stores to the leader of a number of influential civic and business organizations. With grace and purpose, he carefully released himself from old roles and embraced new opportunities. He never looked backward, only forward. He did not fear new ideas. Whatever challenge he chose to address, he was always the right man in the right place at the right time.

Finally, Walter Sondheim was never threatened by other talented people. Indeed, he encouraged young leadership and new faces in the crowd. For this young protestor, who found herself in an elected position inside City Hall, he had nothing but words of encouragement and offers of assistance. He knew that civic leadership was comprised not only of traditional groups, but also of the sweat equity crowd that desired change. He always welcomed new energy and new points of view. Walter remained unburdened by convention and the status quo his entire life long.

I ask that a Baltimore Sun article on the life and contributions of Walter Sondheim be printed in the Record.

The material follows: From the Baltimore Sun, Feb. 15, 2007

Walter Sondheim Jr.: 1908-2007

Through six decades, they called upon Walter Sondheim Jr. When Baltimore mayors, Maryland governors and other civic leaders needed sage advice, inevitably they sought it from a man widely admired for integrity and uncommon warmth and graciousness.

Mr. Sondheim died at 10 a.m. Thursday of pneumonia at Mercy Medical Center. He was 98, and until last week he worked every day at his office at the [Greater Baltimore Committee].

Mr. Sondheim had a gift for nudging people toward grand accomplishments, often to the surpassing benefit of Baltimore and the state beyond. He earned his livelihood as a department store executive, but his legacy can be found in sweeping civic movements.

As president of the Baltimore school board in 1954, Mr. Sondheim insisted–though other cities stalled–on the speedy desegregation of Baltimore schools after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v.
Board of Education. As a leader of the city’s downtown development agency, he coaxed his colleagues into carefully controlled planning of the Inner Harbor. He headed the state panel that promoted regular testing of students. He disdained anything but the highest ethical standards in business and government.

“It’s hard to imagine God having created a better person than Walter Sondheim,’ said Robert C. Embry Jr., the city’s former housing commissioner and now president of the Abell Foundation.

Accolades poured in from the many leaders Mr. Sondheim counseled throughout the decades.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff, said Mr. Sondheim “wasn’t shy about reaching out’ to him with advice when Mr. O’Malley was mayor.

“If there was one enduring quality about Walter Sondheim, it was he had an unrelenting optimism about human nature,’ Mr. O’Malley said Thursday night.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said, “Whether it was integration of the city schools or the redevelopment of Baltimore, he was certainly well ahead of his time.’

William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and mayor who worked closely with Mr. Sondheim on many civic improvement efforts, called his death “a tremendous loss,’ describing Mr. Sondheim as one of the smartest and kindest men he knew.

“Integrity. I’ve never known a man with so much integrity in my life,’ Mr. Schaefer said. “He would not sanction anything that was not right.’

During nearly a century of life, Mr. Sondheim crossed paths with many celebrated personages of his day. His favorite portrait of his late wife, Janet, was taken by the famed photographer Dorothea Lange. His children were delivered by Dr. Alan Guttmacher, a Johns Hopkins obstetrician-gynecologist who was one of the pioneers in the field of reproductive health. His brother-in-law was Richard Neustadt, a Harvard political scientist and the founder of the university’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


His life was also intimately entwined with the history of Baltimore.
He knew H.L. Mencken, who was a friend of Mr. Sondheim’s father. His parents were married a week before the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which destroyed much of the downtown business district.

A droll and charming raconteur, Mr. Sondheim would recount for friends that when his parents returned from their honeymoon to the still-smoking Baltimore, his father told his mother that the fire of their love had engulfed the city.

But beyond the stories was a remarkable record of achievement in reshaping the city. Mr. Schaefer said the Science Center, Harborplace and Charles Center–among other projects–are “all monuments to Walter.’

Through it all, Mr. Sondheim was self-effacing, often protesting his aversion to the spotlight. “I’m not sure how I’ve gotten involved in the variety of things referred to here today,’ he said in 1975 when the Advertising Club of Baltimore gave him its Man of the Year Award.
“One factor, of course, is just being around for so many years. My good, long-suffering, strangely faithful wife is clear about the fact that I’m just weak-kneed and haven’t the courage to say `no.’

“Personally, I lean to the theory, expressed by a friend of mine, that there are some jobs only a damned fool will do, and if you’re one, you have an obligation to accept such an assignment when it’s offered to you.’

People who knew Mr. Sondheim dismissed such talk.

He was a man of great affability who, until the end, delighted in juicy gossip and laughter.’

Everybody wanted him at their parties,’ Mr. Cardin said. “You don’t get many people in their late 90s that everybody wants to be around.
He was one of a kind.’

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a longtime close friend, said he was thinking back Thursday to something Mr. Sondheim told him 20 years ago.

“He said, `Freeman , live life seriously, but don’t take it seriously. You do your best, and then you laugh,’ and that was Walter,’ Mr. Hrabowski said.

Mr. Sondheim performed a vital role as a link between the region’s businessmen and William Donald Schaefer when he was a city councilman, mayor, governor and later state comptroller.

The two men met when a young Mr. Schaefer chaired a City Council committee on urban renewal.

“He would walk into the City Council, and it was like the Lord walked in,’ Mr. Schaefer said. “You would never think of challenging Walter.’

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said that while Mr. Sondheim deeply admired Mr. Schaefer, he never hesitated to speak his mind to the mercurial politician.

“He was never reluctant to tell Schaefer he was making mistakes,’
Ms. Kopp said.

C. Fraser Smith, a former Sun reporter who wrote a biography of Mr.
Schaefer, described an incident in which the two men were flying to Germany to receive an honor on behalf of the city.

Mr. Sondheim, the story goes, took advantage of the opportunity to admonish the mayor over his gruff treatment of people. Why are you so mean to people? Mr. Sondheim asked. After stewing a long time, Mr.
Schaefer demanded to know whom he had treated badly.

“Why don’t you look in the phone book?’ Mr. Sondheim replied.

Once pressed to explain his skills in dealing with people, Mr.
Sondheim allowed that he possessed an ability to listen to others, the patience to find a workable compromise when confronted with controversial points of view, and the gift of being able to put himself in someone else’s position.

He then added: “Liking people is not as important as understanding people. This is a skill that is not born; it’s trained. You can’t be judgmental about somebody with whom you don’t agree.’

Mr. Sondheim was born in his father’s house on Bolton Street on July 25, 1908, an era of gaslights and streetcars. He recalled for a 2003 Sun article that the family passed summers in the cooler climate of a rented home in Pikesville. One summer, his father said he couldn’t join the family; when they returned to Bolton Hill, they found that the elder Mr. Sondheim had spent the time having electric power installed.

Barred from some of the city’s elite schools because he was Jewish, Mr. Sondheim attended Park School, becoming a member of one of its first classes. He went on to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1929, and went to work for the Hochschild, Kohn department store, where his father worked. Mr. Sondheim would later chalk up his job to “nepotism.’

In 1934, he married Janet Blum of Berkeley, Calif., who had been a dancer with the Denishawn Company. He had proposed to her in a speakeasy. They had two children, John W. Sondheim and Ellen Dankert, both of Baltimore.

Mrs. Sondheim, who later became a teacher, died in 1992. Mr.
Sondheim’s death came on what would have been their 73rd wedding anniversary.

Even at a young age, Mr. Sondheim was interested in race relations at a time when few white Baltimoreans questioned segregation as a bedrock principle. He served on the board of the Baltimore Urban League during the 1930s.

“It was really a segregated city,’ Mr. Sondheim recalled in a 1995 interview. “I Page: S2596 GPO’s PDF worked at Hochschild, Kohn’s. We waited on African-Americans but on an all-sales-final basis. People couldn’t return things, they couldn’t eat in the restaurants, and they were only employed in menial capacities. The fact that blacks were not treated as full citizens as customers was a major issue with both the Urban League and the NAACP.’

Mr. Sondheim said he worked within the company to change the practice.
“I was terribly unhappy and embarrassed,’ he said during a 2003 trial in which he testified about the history of discrimination in Baltimore.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sondheim rose to the position of store manager at Hochschild’s and held that post for five years until, in 1942, he was appointed director of the United States Employment Service for Maryland, an agency responsible for transferring people from nonessential jobs to war work.

The following year, he joined the Navy and was commissioned a lieutenant. He was stationed in Cleveland and, when asked about his war service, loved to say he had protected the Great Lakes from Axis invasion. He served until 1946. With the war over, he returned to Hochschild, Kohn.

Mr. Sondheim’s name and reputation came to the attention of Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. in 1948 when he was looking for someone to fill a vacancy in what was then considered “the Jewish seat’ on the school board. Mr. Sondheim accepted the job and served on the board for the next nine years.

Though Mr. Sondheim seldom dwelled on the discrimination he personally encountered, he took the appointment at a time when anti-Semitism was pervasive in the United States in general and Baltimore in particular.

In the 2003 discrimination trial at which he testified, Mr. Sondheim recounted that his family was once blocked from buying a house in Roland Park when the seller found out the Sondheims were Jewish. He also testified that the elite downtown clubs that served the business establishment also barred Jews–a barrier that led to the formation of the Center Club. But when some organizers of that club proposed that it exclude blacks, Mr. Sondheim and several others withdrew their applications. The rule was dropped.


It was while Mr. Sondheim was president of the school board that the city decided in May 1954 to desegregate its schools in response to the Supreme Court’s decision.

Baltimore became the first school district south of the Mason-Dixon line to respond to the Supreme Court’s unanimous, landmark ruling outlawing “separate but equal’ education for blacks and whites.

Integration here was accomplished with relatively little tension compared with events in other cities, and the process was hailed as a signal achievement at the time.

But it did not come entirely without resistance. On one occasion, an opponent of desegregation burned a cross on Mr. Sondheim’s Windsor Hills lawn. But Mr. Sondheim would play down the incident, telling friends that the cross was puny and the fire hardly got started.

“He wouldn’t back off,’ Mr. Schaefer said. “He wouldn’t step aside.
He wouldn’t do anything except what was right.’

In 1958, Morgan State awarded Mr. Sondheim an honorary degree. He accepted his honor alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who received the same honor from the school that day, according to state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse Jr.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sondheim declined to count school desegregation as one of his achievements–noting that 50 years later most African-American students attend schools that are almost entirely black. He would tell listeners that while he and others desegregated the schools, they didn’t succeed in integrating them.

Mr. Sondheim’s next major task in the life of the city came in 1957 when he was named head of the newly created Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Authority, which brought together a number of agencies charged with handling the city’s public housing program.

He said he had no advanced knowledge of public housing–other than having lived with Mrs. Sondheim and their children in a Cleveland public housing project when he was in the Navy–but he started to learn.

The learning process coincided with the city’s initial commitment to downtown renewal, spurred by the GBC, an organization of prominent citizens determined to prevent the area from deteriorating. In his role as housing authority chief and as a member of the GBC, he helped launch the first renewal project, Charles Center.

The year was 1963. His civic responsibilities, added to his work at the department store, overwhelmed him. He resigned as head of the housing authority to devote more time to retailing but remained involved in less demanding civic enterprises.

In 1970, Mr. Sondheim decided to take early retirement from the department store, where he had risen to the post of senior vice president and treasurer, and started a second career with the quasi-public Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management organization that was transforming the city’s skyline and attracting national attention from urban planners.

The new post became a full-time job, but he also was called upon to serve as director of the Baltimore Urban Coalition, chairman of the board of Goucher College and a member, trustee or director of such organizations as Mercy and Sinai hospitals, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.

However, Mr. Sondheim decided in May 1989 to shed some of these responsibilities.

After 15 years as chairman of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, where he worked for $1 a year, he announced his resignation. At the same time, he stepped down as president of Charles Street Management Corp. and Market Center Development Corp., two agencies that helped direct development of other parts of downtown.

“I think that people can stay too long on some jobs,’ he said when announcing his retirement.

Soon he settled into an office at the GBC, where he took the title of senior adviser. His work ethic never flagged. When snow prompted other staff members to leave the office early, Mr. Sondheim, who lived nearby in a condominium at Harbor View, would take over the job of answering phones.

Asked once why he never joined in the white flight out of the city, Mr. Sondheim replied: “What I learned early on is cutting grass is not as good as walking pavement.’

Two years after taking senior status at the GBC, Mr. Sondheim was appointed by Mr. Schaefer to chair a gubernatorial panel on school performance–a group that would become known as the Sondheim Commission. The group produced a report that became the blueprint for what would become known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP.

The controversial test, with its heavy emphasis on writing skills, would be the state’s chief educational measurement tool for a decade.


While on senior status, Mr. Sondheim would continue to be sought out for advice by aspiring political leaders.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Mr. Sondheim was one of the first people he turned to for advice before launching his campaign for the State House. Then the Prince George’s County executive, Mr.
Glendening said he and Mr. Sondheim spoke for well over an hour about education and the condition of Baltimore. After his election as governor in 1994, Mr. Glendening said he frequently solicited Mr.
Sondheim’s views on “big picture’ issues such as the city-state partnership in running Baltimore schools.

“I would talk with him and always come away with a feeling of awe,’
Mr. Glendening said.

In 1997, when he was 89, Mr. Sondheim was the central figure in a Wall Street Journal article about people who delayed retirement far beyond the age of Social Security eligibility.

The Page 1 article recounted how Mr. Sondheim sent a letter to his closest friends asking them to let him know–by anonymous note if they preferred–if he ever reached the point where it was time to stop coming to work.

Lainy Lebow-Sachs, former chief of staff to Mr. Schaefer and a longtime friend of Mr. Sondheim’s, said none of his friends wrote such a reply. “Everybody ripped it up,’ she said.

Mr. O’Malley said Mr. Sondheim played a behind-the-scenes role in his
2004 standoff with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick over the control of the city school system. The governor described Mr. Sondheim as performing “shuttle diplomacy’
between City Hall and Mrs. Grasmick, a close friend of Mr. Sondheim who had aligned herself with Mr. Ehrlich in favor of increased state control.

“He tried very much to be a conciliator on that score and felt that it was very unhealthy for the progress of our kids that the school system wound up as a political football,’ Mr. O’Malley said. He added that Mr. Sondheim privately urged him to stick by his guns on the issue of local control.

Mr. Sondheim cut back on some activities in his final years. In 2001, he stepped down as president of the state school board, a post he had held since 1998. Two years later, he left the board after serving two terms as a member. Last year, he stepped down from the board of the Abell Foundation.

But he remained active in business and political activities well into his late 90s. In 2006, he recruited a group of prominent Baltimoreans who were interested in buying The Sun from Tribune Co. Until his death, he served on one board that ensures compliance with the state’s open-meetings laws and another that runs the American Visionary Arts Museum.

As he advanced in years, Mr. Sondheim frequently joked about his age.
Once, asked how he was doing, he replied: “OK, considering my antiquity.’

Ms. Lebow-Sachs said Mr. Sondheim’s longevity and vigor could not be attributed to a health regimen. “He ate anything he wanted, and he didn’t exercise since 1921,’ she said.

Mr. Sondheim would continue to drive–but only during the day–until the week before his death, when he broke his ankle in an accident. It was after that injury that he would check into Mercy, where his final illness was diagnosed.

Ms. Lebow-Sachs and Mr. Schaefer recalled that every time Mr. Sondheim received an honor–and there were dozens–he would go on and on about how he didn’t deserve it.

Mr. Schaefer said his friends’ reaction was always: “For God’s sake, Walter, cut that out!’

In 2005, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County named its social sciences building after Mr. Sondheim and his late wife, he admonished school officials. Page: S2597 GPO’s PDF

“You shouldn’t name a building for people who are still alive,’ Mr. Sondheim — then 96 — said at the dedication ceremony. You never know what they’ll do tomorrow.’

In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Sondheim is survived by two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter. He is also survived by a sister-in-law, Shirley Williams, a former member of Britain’s Parliament and Mr. Neustadt’s widow. 

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