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William Donald Schaefer died Monday of complications from pneumonia. Schaefer dominated Maryland politics for half a century, first as the larger-than-life mayor of Baltimore and then as governor and comptroller. Best known for his tireless promotion of the city he loved, the four-term mayor revived Baltimore’s downtown and waterfront, pushing projects large and small with the slogan, “Do it Now.”
- Charles Robinson Political Correspondent, Maryland Public Television
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe was the larger-than-life figure who dominated Maryland politics for half a century. In his four terms as Baltimore's mayor, he transformed the decaying downtown into a tourist destination. He was known for colorful antics like personally collecting garbage during a sanitation worker strike, and he was the tireless force behind the city's biggest projects, including the landmarks the city is still known for, Baltimore Aquarium, Inner Harbor, and later, Oriole Park at Camden Yards. As governor of Maryland for two terms, he was never afraid to face down opponents, whether a legislator or the NRA.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe later became the state's comptroller, where he reformed the retirement and pension systems, and, of course, a legendary curmudgeon. Here to remember this remarkable man is Charles Robinson. He joins us by telephone. Charles is the political correspondent for Maryland Public Television. Charles, good to talk to you again.
MR. CHARLES ROBINSONWell, you know, Kojo, this is one of those great losses in the state of Maryland that, you know, people will be talking about for years. I found Schaefer, if you will -- or as his nickname is, Willy Don -- a paradox, you know? He could really get into people's goads and at times then he would find compassion, you know? When he was running for governor of the state of Maryland, he made a really disparaging remark about the Eastern Shore that people have never ever forgotten...
ROBINSON...he essentially called the Eastern Shore the outhouse. And…
NNAMDIA little more -- a little cruder than that, but, yes, you got the point. Yeah.
ROBINSONRight. But the whole idea was he would say things like that, then he would go, I'm really, really sorry, you know? He has both a love-hate relationship with people all across the state, where people, I mean, people were like cult followers of William Donald Schaefer, you know...
NNAMDII got to tell you, I first became aware of William Donald Schaefer the first time I went to the city of Baltimore in the early 1970s. And it seemed like every bench I sat down on and every place I looked, there was a placard carrying the name William Donald Schaefer on it. He became mayor of Baltimore in 1971 and was elected three more times. How did he change the city?
ROBINSONWell, he essentially made people proud to be Baltimoreans. You know, the joke was that Baltimore was that stop on the Inner Harbor, that you went underneath the Patapsco River to get to New York...
ROBINSON...or, conversely, going South. And he wanted people to stop and see the beauty of the city that he saw. And many times, people would go, well, what's so beautiful about it? Because the Inner Harbor, as a kid, as I was growing up, is where all the longshoremen were, and it was a pretty decrepit place. He said, no, I'm gonna change all that. I'm gonna have all these streetscapes. I'm gonna create this thing called an aquarium. And he said, and if it's not built, guess what. I'm going to swim with the sharks. That's what he initially said. He ended up swimming with some seals, and that became the picture of Baltimore all across the country.
NNAMDIWashington has been jealous of that harbor ever since. He was best known for big urban planning projects. How did he make those happen in a tough economy in the '70s and '80s?
ROBINSONOne of the things he picked up on was this concept called block grants, and this was a new concept where the states were going to get block grants. And so he said, I'm gonna apply for one of these. And he went to his good friend, Jim Rouse, and said, Jim, I need you to build me this facility downtown. I got this money. Can you get me some private money to go along with it? And that's how the Inner Harbor began.
NNAMDIHe was also known for his big personality. You just described one side of that personality, the fact that he could sometimes be very insulting to people. But on the other hand, he could not only apologize, he could be loved and hated sometimes by the same people. I think you have a story about a friend of yours who was coaching a little league team?
ROBINSONYes. My good friend, Michael Johnson. He was, you know, he was upset. And all of a sudden, the mayor comes through, and he starts yelling at him and said, hey, look, we can't even play baseball here because the grass is so high. And, you know, under normal circumstances, he'd probably say, you know, I really don't wanna listen to this guy. He gets on his phone. He calls somebody up. And 30 minutes later, they cut the grass and lined the field. And that endeared this guy to the governor -- I mean, the mayor then. And what's also interesting is how he treated the press. You know, we're not really loved by people. He really hated the press. And one of his favorite targets was this cartoonist named Kal of the Baltimore Sun.
NNAMDIWho we've had on the show quite a few times here, yes.
ROBINSON(laugh) Right. And he drew this persona of this guy with this big head. And he used to always come up to him, said, I hate what you draw about me. And -- but he would love it. He would go, that's pretty good. And, you know, and over the years, he had various run-ins. I mean, I got the run-in when he came up to me and said, who are you, and why are you saying these things? I said, I don't think you know who I am. Yes, I do. And I think probably, you know, towards the end of his career, he was a comptroller in the state of Maryland. And, you know, unfortunately...
NNAMDIYour fortune is he didn't show up at your front door. He's been known to do that.
ROBINSONNo, no. Yeah, he did that to a couple of people.
ROBINSONOne of the things that happened was, is that every month, we have a Board of Public Works. And there was this young aide who was a rather attractive woman. He asked her...
NNAMDII remember that, yeah.
ROBINSONAnd he asked her to walk back across the room. And he never really addressed people formally. He would say little girl...
ROBINSON...young lady, and it was very insulting. And many of us in the press corps were like, did he actually say that? And, of course, his aide was like, well, you know, he wasn't -- mean it really. And then he went -- he came back out and he says, no, I meant what I said.
ROBINSONAnd that began the downfall, if you will, of Donald -- William Donald Schaefer's aura. But I think...
NNAMDIThe curmudgeonly period is what I like to call it.
ROBINSONRight. But, you know, one of the things that I thought was very interesting, you know, Maryland Public Television, as I like to say, well, we used to do great television. We had a show called "Crabs." And during the show, they do a spoof of William Donald Schaefer, and they asked him to come in, to sit down and, for this dating service, to tell us what you like and what you do. And he's all about Baltimore. He goes, look, you know, on my spare time, I fill potholes and collect trash.
NNAMDI(laugh) Yeah, he really loved the city of Baltimore. You also think he'll go down as the most important governor in the state of Maryland. What do you think he'll be most remembered for in 30, 40, 50 years from now?
ROBINSONI think what he will be remembered for is the infrastructure and the things he built in the -- across the state. I go back to Morgan State University, which was an HBCU in the state of Maryland. The students there were protesting, and they didn't know that the governor decided to come see what they were protesting about. He went on a tour of the dorms and he said, this has got to stop. He began to then pump more money into Morgan State University than the university had ever seen.
ROBINSONFirst, they built -- they rebuilt all the dorms that hadn't -- that were built in like the '30s. Then he said, I'm gonna build you a brand new engineering building. So that's part of it. The other part was he learned how to bring people together that didn't necessarily like each other. And that then -- he got labor to get on the same page with government and said, look, I need you guys to get on the same page with me 'cause I got to build some stuff here and I'm gonna make everybody bigger and better for it. The last thing that he did was he brought a football team back to Baltimore. Now...
NNAMDIBecause he was extremely upset when the Indian -- when the Baltimore Colts headed out of town in the middle of the night, yeah.
ROBINSONOh, yeah. And what was fascinating about that, he sued the NFL and he lost. So he always said, I got to get a football team back in order to make Baltimore, if you will, this major league city. So they put together this idea, is we're gonna build it. You know, they said, build it and they'll come. Well, he started showing the revenue projections to some people around the league, and the one team that bit on it was the Cleveland Browns.
ROBINSONAnd what ends up happening is the Browns decide that they're going to leave Cleveland and move to Baltimore. But it happens during Gov. Glendening's term. I don't know if he forgot or it was a slight, because he and Schaefer didn't get along.
NNAMDIThis is true. Here is Eric in...
ROBINSONAnd they didn't...
NNAMDIGo ahead. Finish your story.
ROBINSONAnd guess what. He shows up anyway. Schaefer shows up at the groundbreaking ceremonies. And because he knew that he had finally accomplished the one thing that he always dreaded -- losing the Baltimore Colts.
NNAMDIHere's a question from Eric in Manassas, Va. Eric, go ahead, please.
ERICYes. Good afternoon. Thank you for having -- for a very interesting show. How much did Gov. Schaefer and, before that, Mayor Schaefer, how much did he have to do with the formation of Fells Point and as an arts oriented district? And also, did he have anything to do with the composing of the folk song about (word?) in Fells Point?
NNAMDIFells Point. Do you know anything about that, Charles?
ROBINSONYes. Fells Point -- I understand that most tourists know about the Inner Harbor because that's the tourist attraction, where people actually live down in Fells Point. Now people live in and around the Inner Harbor now, but that was basically a working class neighborhood. He believed that if you build up neighborhoods, that that was the key. So he was -- he would go -- I'd like to give you an example. Adjacent to the Inner Harbor is a place called Little Italy. And next door to that...
ROBINSON...is where Fells Point begins. What he realized was is that this was an underserved area, and he gave them some infrastructure. And it becomes this "Georgetown-like" area in the Baltimore area, where people now find a lot of things. The other thing was, he worked with the film community. And what's fascinating, it's where the series "Homicide" was filmed.
ROBINSONHe wasn't a big fan of "Homicide," but he loved the money.
NNAMDI(laugh) I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Charles Robinson reflecting on the life of the late William Donald Schaefer, former mayor of Baltimore, former governor of Maryland. Charles Robinson is the political correspondent for Maryland Public Television. Charles, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBINSONDon't forget to watch "Citizen Schaefer" tonight at 9:30 on Maryland Public Television.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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