William Donald Schaefer, 89, Leader and Defender of Baltimore, Dies at Charlestown Retirement Community

Posted on April 19, 2011


WILLIAM DONALD SCHAEFER, MAYOR AND GOVERNOR, public domain photo via Wikipedia

(NOTE: The documentary, “Citizen Schaefer,” will be broadcast on Maryland Public Television  on Apr. 27 at 8 p.m.)

Maryland flags are flying at half-mast this week in honor of William Donald Schaefer, mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland.

Mr. Schaefer passed away on Monday at Charlestown Retirement Community, in Catonsville, Baltimore County. He was 89. His longtime aide, Lainy Lebow-Sachs, was at his side, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Photo by Tom Darden, official photographer for five Maryland governors

As four-term mayor of Baltimore beginning in 1971, Mr. Schaefer was famous for his “Do it today!” approach to city government. Mr. Schaefer also served two terms as governor of Maryland. He began his public service career as a member of the Baltimore City Council, and concluded his government service as elected comptroller of Maryland. As both governor and comptroller, he was one of the three members of the state Board of Public Works.

For the past few years Mr. Schaefer has lived in retirementwith a view of the Baltimore skyline, at the Charlestown Retirement Community, a former seminary located on a large campus southwest of the city.

For William Donald Schaefer, government service was more than a career, it was a vocation.

As mayor and governor, Mr. Schaefer was a man who saw the needs of Baltimore and its residents everywhere. He took the needs seriously, and wanted them addressed, TODAY! The needs were endless, and there was never enough money. He was a master at leveraging a little government seed money to attract private-sector investment.

When the recession that began in June 1990 strained the Maryland budget to the limit, people blamed Mr. Schaefer, then in his second term as governor. He had made government work in Baltimore, so people blamed him when state government ran into financial problems. During that time, he was unfairly reviled by many taxpayers, particularly in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

Here’s my take: At the beginning of Schaefer’s career on the Baltimore City Council, Maryland citizens still had the old can-do American Spirit. We wanted to progress and build, and Mr. Schaefer was the man for that time. By his second term as governor, America and Maryland had soured into a can’t-do attitude. Many citizens are appalled by the thought of building any public facility that might outlive them.

Mr. Schaefer’s major projects, like the Baltimore Inner Harbor early on, and the Camden Yards baseball stadium as governor, always started out with strong opposition, but ended being hailed as great achievements.

Today’s news story by Michael Dresser in The Baltimore Sun, begins with the following sentence:

“William Donald Schaefer, the dominant political figure of the last half-century of Maryland history, died Monday after a “do-it-now” career that changed the face of Baltimore while bringing a new burst of energy to the city he loved.”

Mr. Schaefer was a lifelong bachelor. Obituaries said Mr. Schaefer had no survivors. But one caller to a WYPR talk show today pointed out quite correctly that Mr. Schaefer is survived by the entire city of Baltimore. Mr. Schaefer’s longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, passed away in 1999.

For a more complete treatment of the life and work of William Donald Schaefer, I recommend, “William Donald Schaefer, A Political Biography,” by C. Fraser Smith, a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Schaefer was widely regarded as the best mayor in American, in his time, and even now. “He set the standard for what it means to be the mayor of an American city,” said the current mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings Blake, as reported in The Baltimore Sun.

One of the best profiles I’ve ever read about Mr. Schaefer is “Can the Best Mayor Win?” by Richard Ben Cramer, in the October 1984 issue of Esquire Magazine. The story runs 10 pages, and it draws a fine portrait of Mr. Schaefer’s compelling personality and his unparalleled devotion to his city.

Mr. Cramer’s Esquire story begins:

“William Donald Schaefer is committed to saving one glorious goddam thing. Baltimore.


They’ll have to, you know. He saved the town.”

They did make that statue of William Donald Schaefer. It was unveiled on his birthday in 2009.

— John Hayden