Schaefer turns 80 and looks back
By Dan Rodricks
Originally published November 2, 2001
O'Malley's people keep missing it. They drive by it every day on the
way to City Hall, yet the situation lingers, and the more it lingers the
more it serves as evidence - at least in the parochial view of William
Donald Schaefer - of an administration not paying enough attention to
the grimy details of life in the city of Baltimore.
So what is "it"?
"It" is a mystery.
"It" could be any common urban affliction - pile of trash reeking,
abandoned rowhouse crumbling, pothole gaping, storm drain
collapsing. William Donald Schaefer won't say.
"Noooo," he bellows when asked if he's called the office he occupied
for 15 years to make Mayor Martin O'Malley and his staff aware of
the problem. "Not going to."
He's not going to because he's up to his old tricks. He's conducting a
little test. He wants to see how vigilant O'Malley and his staff are. So
far, along this narrow front of municipal governance, Schaefer is not
A man who's celebrating his 80th birthday today might have other
things to worry about, his arthritic knees, the state of his pension, the
passing of old friends. Not Schaefer. He's thinking about "it" and the
guy half his age running the city. But Schaefer'll give him this: It's not all
the young mayor's fault.
O'Malley served in City Council while the reserved Kurt L. Schmoke
was mayor, and so he did not learn - "serve an apprenticeship" - under
a master. He missed important lessons about how to be mayor - about
taking care of all the little things first, the big things later. That might
explain why "it" is still out there - unnoticed, untreated.
"It won't be touched for months," Schaefer says cagily, again refusing
to describe or give the location of the problem. "I know exactly where
it is. I go by it once or twice a week."
The United States might be under a general alert for more terrorist
attacks, and O'Malley might be working night and day to make the city
safe, but he's apparently failed to look out a car window and notice
"it." And that grates on Schaefer like an itch he cannot reach.
"What the hell's the matter with his people?" he says. "They go by it
every day. My people - if they went by it every day - that was bad,
that wasn't good for them. No, no. If I saw an abandoned car there
more than a week, oh, that was bad."
Remember now: This is the impatient man with the storied City
Hall-sized temper who used to howl at his staff for not responding
quickly to his "action memos" on potholes and trash-strewn alleys.
Once he simply wrote the words "abandoned car" on a piece of paper,
presented it to his cabinet meeting and dared its members to find the
This is a man who, on the eve of his 80th birthday, described the
happiest moment of his long, productive and sometimes kooky political
life as this: "That Saturday and Sunday, when I'd go around the city
and I had my mini-memos with me, and one weekend I broke the
record, I wrote 121 mini-memos. I found 121 things wrong. I was so
happy that day. That was my greatest - Saturday and Sunday, I don't
remember the year. I went down streets, down alleys. Oh, god. I
broke the record."
His own record.
This is the William Donald Schaefer of legend - the "Do it now" man
who, after a long stint as mayor and two terms as governor, became
state comptroller and, even from that relatively sedentary position,
manages to play action hero on the streets of his native city, sending his
revenuers out to bust after-hours clubs and arrest cigarette smugglers.
He's been a persistent thorn in the side of his successor in the
governor's office, criticizing Parris Glendening every other week at the
state Board of Public Works. Vexed by Glendening's decision to turn
off an Annapolis fountain that had been the pride of Schaefer's
longtime companion, the late Hilda Mae Snoops, the irascible former
governor played a major part in exposing Glendening's personal
relationship with a female staff member. He can still play payback with
As he enters his ninth decade, William Donald Schaefer shows little
inclination to seal his lips or change his tune. True to form, he resists
extensive self-reflection in public and changes the subject, sometimes
suddenly, to his time as mayor and to the bright and loyal people who
worked for "that dummy" between 1971 and 1986. Those, after all,
were the years the Schaefer Legend took shape.
The Sun: So how's it hitting you? The big Eight-Zero.
WDS: Zero. You don't know you're 80. I was with [former Gov.]
Marvin Mandel, and he's 81 and he said, "That old man, he was 80."
And I looked over at him and said, "That old man! What do you think
you are?" We don't think 80. I can't think 80. I never thought I'd make
80. When I was young, if you made 60, you were old. I sat in church
today for [81-year-old Laurel Mayor] Frank Casula's funeral. What
made me so happy was Frank was a great, great guy, and the church
was packed to the doors. Priest had a really fine homily. You sit there
and think, "What is there besides having people love and respect you?"
Was the hardest part of your life leaving Baltimore for Annapolis and
watching someone else run the city?
I made a difference when I was mayor. When you were mayor, you'd
see something wrong, see a sewer corner collapsed, and the next day
you'd have it fixed. ... I spent my time on little things and often said,
"The buildings were gonna be built, new bridges were gonna be built,
but the potholes had to be filled." My job was to get the potholes
filled, keep the lights on, cut the shrubbery, make the city the way I
wanted it to be. All these planners came to me to talk about "Baltimore
10 years from now." I said, "What the hell's this? What are you doing
now?" They finally got the idea that I wanted it nice while I was alive.
You didn't like letting go of the city, did you?
If Du Burns had been [elected mayor in 1987], the city of Baltimore
would have prospered and moved like wild. Du Burns was a smart,
practical man. Not well educated, but he had the common touch. The
business community miscalculated and put Schmoke in because he
was a Rhodes Scholar and all that stuff, but after six years they knew
they'd made a terrible mistake.
And what about O'Malley?
Remember now: He didn't have any apprenticeship with a [strong]
mayor. He won't listen to anyone over 40. He wants to make his own
mistakes, find his own way, do his own thing. Be my guest. There are
so many things he could learn from [longtime civic activist] Walter
And from you?
Yeah, a lot of things I could tell him. But he doesn't want to do that.
O'Malley might have big political aspirations. You never had those, did
No. ... I wouldn't have run for governor except that it was my turn and
it was time to go. But that wasn't a happy day.
You had mixed feelings about that.
Yeah. I look back and I think, I ran for mayor because [attorney
George L.] Russell, who was my friend - he's my friend now - he
wasn't qualified. I was much more qualified than he was. I knew the
city. George was a very smart guy, but he didn't have a touch for
people. When I ran for governor, what the hell's his name?
[Former Maryland Attorney General] Steve Sachs.
Same thing. Sachs was a brilliant, brilliant man, but he didn't have that
common touch. He was so much smarter than I was. But he was
looking to be president, and it was my turn to run for governor.
You always talk about "serving an apprenticeship" under different
mayors way back. What did you learn from "Old Tommy" [Thomas J.
Old Tommy was great. He was dynamic. He was forceful. I voted
against him most of the time. Most of the time the vote [in City
Council] was 19-2. Everything he was for Mike Hankin and I were
against. But Tommy never beat us up. He never said, "Don't help him,"
like some guys. He never did that. He was my friend.
Politics can be tough. You have to make your alliances, and people
cross each other. Did you ever regret hanging onto a grudge?
Yes, man by the name of Smelser, state senator. Charles Smelser. He
used to vote against everything I wanted in the state legislature. He
was totally conservative. And I used to say, "Oh, I'd like to mash him."
But after he was out, he and I were the best of friends. I was wrong
about him. He had a philosophy. He was totally conservative, but I
couldn't see it. I wanted to spend money, and he didn't want to spend
money, and I couldn't understand him.
So maybe you didn't learn that lesson so well from Old Tommy.
Well, no. I was different. I held some grudges, no question. But after
time, age gets you, and you don't worry about it.
It's hard to keep friends in politics, when you're in the midst of
deal-making, trying to get what you want.
There's ways of doing it. Glendening does it by fear. If you don't do
what he says, he beats you to death.
Some people used to say that about you - when he was mayor, you
didn't dare cross William Donald Schaefer.
I had a reputation for that but I was not that bad. Nobody quit,
nobody quit. ... When [longtime state comptroller] Louie [Goldstein]
died and they found out I was gonna be comptroller, they almost all
pissed their pants. "Here comes this nasty S.O.B. He is gonna be hell
on wheels." And all of Louie's head people, they'd be talking in the hall
and having a good time, and I'd walk in and [silence]. I'd say, "How
are ya?" Six months, they never said a word. Now, things are great. I
never once thought about getting rid of any of them because, just
because you're new, you don't bring in all your own people and get rid
of all the qualified people. You learn that from experience.
You've always worn your feelings on your sleeve. ... Did you ever
learn to let go of unhealthy things, bad feelings?
I was sitting in church today for Frank Casula's funeral, and I thought,
"Glendening was able to drive a spike between [state treasurer
Richard] Dixon and myself, and I thought, "He shouldn't do that. That's
the wrong thing to do." Glendening did that - between a guy who I
admired and liked he drilled a spike between us.
So patch it up.
Well, we'll never be the way we were because there have been a lot of
bitter words by me, and he had ones against me. [Dixon called
Schaefer a "quirky clown" Oct. 24, the day before this interview.] But
Glendening is different because I have no feeling for him. He
embarrassed me so many times, every time he got a chance. He
couldn't do anything after I became comptroller, so he turned the
fountain off. That's only thing he could get me on. The vindictiveness.
There's a lot of symbolism for you in that fountain - it was Hilda Mae's
doing, it was put there when you were governor. Do you worry about
your legacy being dissed, about people forgetting about you?
No way. I got things named after me in every part of the state. I saw
to it. I got a state building on Baltimore Street where my name is in
stone. They'd have to tear the building down to get my name off of it.
Do you wish you had family now, grandchildren? Do you wish you'd
gotten married and had a family?
Well, I miss Hilda Mae. She was always with me, and it was sort of
lonely after she passed on. But, you know, I had a women's cabinet,
so many women who worked for me, and they were all very good to
me. ... But yes, I'd have liked to have children - that were grown. I'd
like to have had them start off at 20 years old. ... I miss Hilda Mae the
most at Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's when it gets a little
lonesome. Hilda Mae always had a big dinner with all her children at
Thanksgiving. Now I go down to Ocean City and spend Thanksgiving
with the Phillips family. They're very good to me. I go with my friend
Gene Raynor. And I get invited to a lot of things, but I don't go to all
of them because there are a lot of guys there with their wives. But
that's it. I survive. I live. I keep going.
All these years, when things were bugging you, who did you talk to?
Hilda Mae is gone, so who do you talk to now?
All those people who worked for me - Mark Wasserman, [Robert]
Embry, Walter Sondheim, Sally Michel, Lainy Lebow, Sandy Hillman
- they're my family, they all know my moods better than I do. They
don't wait for me to call them. They call me. I had cataracts removed.
I have drops I'm supposed to put in my eyes, but I don't like to do it.
Sondheim calls me up, out of the blue, just to talk. But I know what he
was after. He wanted me to put the drops in my eyes. There were
pastors who used to come to see me because they knew I was down,
and they knew when it was time to pray.
When you were mayor you used to dress up in funny costumes and
hats, but you didn't always look very happy about it.
I loved it! Those were my happy days. Then I became governor, and
they said I was crazy. You can't do that when you're governor, so I
You've been in politics - what? - 50 years? How do you get more
young people interested in this life? It's not something well thought of.
Go to the School of Public Affairs run by Susan Schwab over the
University of Maryland. She's got a bunch of young people, and I
honestly believe 50 percent will go into public affairs.
What should motivate them?
Desire to help people. There's a lot of people who really want to help
people. I believe this. I think there are a lot of young, bright people
interested in public service, teaching and government. ... You've got
[George W.] Bush now. I think he's a direct absolute contrast to [Bill]
Clinton. I knew Clinton for what he was. He was a handsome sucker.
He was wild after women. He typified the worst kind of politician - a
liar, a womanizer, a cheat. He was brilliant. I just don't trust him. You
got to remember I've been here 80 years. I came in at a time of [City
Councilmen] Jack Edelman, Sol Liss, Leon Rubenstein. ... When I
would count votes for Tommy, and I'd ask, "Are you gonna vote for
this?" and they'd say yes, and never once did I ever go back and ask
them again. You counted on them. They gave their word. Now I
watched the whole swing away to where your word is nothing, your
word is absolute zero. ... I see a guy in a McDonald's. He throws his
arms around me. "I love ya, guy. I love ya. You're my friend, you're
great. Oh, god, I love ya." I pick up the newspaper next day and he
was taking my ass apart.
Who was it?
I can't tell ya.
Another mystery. ... What about that "problem" you said you saw in
the city - the one you haven't told O'Malley about - is it an abandoned
But it's something "falling in."
Are you ever going to tell O'Malley about it?
Oh, yeah, I will - someday.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun