Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pothole procession for ex-mayor

Schaefer’s last ride

through his beloved city

likely a little bumpy

In the end, he moves to suburbia

William Donald Schaefer, the do-it-now Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, didn’t have to wait for a grave for a little posthumous gymnastics. He must have been rolling over in the hearse during a final ride around his beloved city.

Call it the Grand Pothole Tour of Baltimore.

Schaefer hated potholes, trash, abandoned cars – the annoyances and detritus that herald neglect and urban decay. Media folks and pols who observed Schaefer during his nearly half a century in public office wrote in recent days of his sometimes crazed demands to fix what he saw was broken.

As mayor for 15 years, Schaefer would observe problems on rides through the city and send “blue notes” to department heads pointing out what they needed to address immediately, if not sooner. By one account I read, Schaefer blue-noted an abandoned car that he wanted towed off the street – but didn’t divulge the location. Supposedly, several hundred abandoned cars were hauled away in the ensuing days.

It doesn’t take a Grand Tour to find potholes around town these days, amid a seemingly constant stream of utility and road work ripping up streets and patching the resulting wounds – rarely with an even surface.

Over the last few months, the city has spent millions of dollars repaving portions of the key arteries of Pratt and Light streets for use in early September as the course of Baltimore’s first grand prix Indy-car race.

Even the bright new concrete seems to have repaved patches now.

Maybe it was inevitably a losing battle to make the city a better place. It took a tireless leader, with a singular devotion to the job. That’s one of the attributes that made Schaefer a rarity among politicians.

Schaefer died on April 18 at a retirement community nursing facility, at 89. His health had been in a downward spiral in recent months.

Tour begins at home

After lying in state for several hours Monday at the State House in Annapolis, Schaefer was driven north to Baltimore for the Grand Tour, beginning outside the westside rowhouse where the bachelor mayor had lived with his aging mother until her death in 1983 – and long after most white neighbors had fled the area. He owned the house until 1998, retreating there at times even when he was governor and ostensibly living in Government House, Maryland’s official gubernatorial residence.

Trouble was, home – on Edgewood Street – was where his heart resided.

I caught up with Monday’s memorial motorcade at Harborplace, where in 2009 Schaefer made what was likely his last major public appearance– for the dedication of his statue near the edge of the landmark tourist destination that three decades ago became the foundation for his vision of an urban renaissance.

About 200 people, including statue sculptor Rodney Carroll, waited there for the procession’s anticipated late afternoon arrival, and then the crowd doubled in size as the gathering attracted attention and the motorcade, led by nearly two dozen police motorcycles, passed by on the way to a stop at nearby Federal Hill Park.

Minutes later, the hearse and its escort of motorcycles, limousine and SUVs bearing dignitaries turned onto the brick promenade by the statue, and was surrounded by the throng that ranged from homeless people to former Schaefer aides in city and state government.

Some eyed the flag-draped casket, or touched the back of the hearse. Others carried treasured keepsakes, one woman with a certificate of merit he had given her for government service. A former aide pulled out an old Schaefer election T-shirt from her pocketbook – a souvenir now a few sizes too small to wear.

There was spontaneous applause, and three booms of cannon fire from the topsail schooner Pride of Baltimore 2 – the city and state goodwill ship. The original Pride, championed and commissioned by Mayor Schaefer, was launched in 1977. It was lost in the Atlantic in 1986, along with four of its 12 crew members. Federal Hill overlooks its memorial.

From Harborplace, the motorcade moved along to another key Schaefer landmark – Baltimore’s National Aquarium. As mayor, he pushed for its creation – and when its scheduled completion was delayed by several weeks, Schaefer famously took a dip in its seal pool. The stunt brought Baltimore worldwide publicity.

Along the circular drive outside the aquarium, hundreds more spectators – and dozens of its employees – had gathered to cheer Schaefer. One of them held up a cut-out photo of Schaefer, in the classic image of him wearing a Victorian-style bathing suit and straw-hat boater, and holding an inflated blowup Donald Duck. The near-lifesize cut-out was marked on the back as having been displayed at the aquarium’s grand opening.

The procession continued through Little Italy and Fells Point, and ended at City Hall where Schaefer again was honored by lying in state until 9 p.m. Tuesday – and as the final hour neared, a city parking control agent was ticketing cars at expired meters nearby. Evidently, when you visit City Hall – even after 7 p.m., to pay final respects to a former mayor – you have to cough up $2 an hour at curbside.

His funeral takes place Wednesday.

Hilda who?

The memorial procession did not pass Club Hippo – a gay nightspot where, I’ve heard, Schaefer received a raucous greeting as he passed by during a parade down Charles Street years ago.

Some in the gay community felt that Schaefer, too, was gay and they wanted him out of the closet.

For many years, there’s been speculation about the sex life of Schaefer – a bachelor who steadfastly lived with mother and never married. But that’s apparently all you get on the subject: Speculation.

A political biography by former Baltimore Sun reporter C. Fraser Smith noted that, as a young man, Schaefer frequented the city’s adult entertainment district known as The Block.

There’s been talk that his most serious attraction was to Mary Arabian, who became his law partner and later the first female judge on the old city Municipal Court.

And later, there was Hilda Mae Snoops, a divorced mother of three, nurse and retired health care analyst for the federal Health Care Financing Administration. She was a longtime friend, and became something more as his close companion. She was at times described as his girlfriend. And in the absence of a First Lady of Maryland during Schaefer’s eight-year run as governor, she was given a title as the state’s “Official Hostess.”

Of course, the press referred to her privately as “Snoopy.”

Eventually, she talked Schaefer into purchasing a townhouse adjoining her home in a northeastern Anne Arundel County community.

But as for how close their relationship, who knows? Who even cares?

More importantly, in an era when scandals are all too frequent, there was none when it came to William Donald Schaefer. Whatever his style (if there was any style at all),, he was never caught in a tawdry situation – unlike so many celebrities and office-holding hypocrites, both Democrat and Republican.

Name your favorite: Democrat Eliot Spitzer, the New York governor with a peccadillo for pricy prostitutes; President Clinton and the knee-padded intern; Robert Bauman, the Republican Maryland congressman and married father of four whose closet life included a 16-year-old male prostitute; presidential candidate and marital cheater John Edwards.

The list could be, to borrow a Trumpian adjective, huge.

Schaefer, whatever the relationship, was devoted to public life, his city, and Snoops – who died in 1999.

According to his wish, Schaefer will be interred at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens next to Snoops – oddly enough, outside the city limits.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Remembering Schaefer

Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer holds tiny Lauren Schupp-Ettlin, in 1980.
(Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Two awkward encounters

with a political giant

William Donald Schaefer, dead at 89

William Donald Schaefer, who dominated Baltimore and Maryland politics for most of his nearly half a century in public life, died Monday at the age of 89 – leaving behind a city reborn, or at least reinvented, through his leadership.

He served 12 years as a city councilman, 4 as council president and 15 years as mayor before reluctantly moving on to state government with two terms as governor and two more as Maryland’s comptroller – the latter taken on out of spite for his successor, Parris N. Glendening.

There’s plenty of adjectives that could be tossed around to describe Schaefer – petulant is a good one, and annoyed another. Impatient, too.

I hardly knew Schaefer. Oddly, my father-in-law Alvin Schupp spent more time near Schaefer – when they were high school classmates at Baltimore City College. The students were seated in alphabetical lines, and Schaefer was right in front of Schupp.

I’d like to say that from my 40-year Baltimore Sun newspaper career, I had some deep personal insight, but in fact our paths crossed only twice face to face. I didn’t cover City Hall, except in working an occasional story by telephone. Even then, I can’t remember talking to him over the phone – though I’m sure I must have a few times.

One actual encounter was on the job. Mayor Schaefer was preparing to announce the restoration of police foot patrols on the city’s east side. The Sun had found out about it, and I was sent to Northwest Baltimore – where Schaefer had a scheduled appearance at the old Baltimore Hebrew College – to ask how the city would pay for the extra manpower involved.

On the sidewalk, Schaefer was pissed at the evident leak. “How do you know about that?” he demanded, adding a few choice and profane comments about the newspaper. “Only three people know about that – me, the police commissioner and Benton (Charles Benton, the city finance director).” He climbed into the back seat of his city car, while I quickly phoned Schaefer’s comments to then-city editor Gil Watson.

“You can tell him Benton blabbed his guts out,” Watson told me. But Schaefer’s car was pulling away from the curb. I ran after it, shouting, “Benton did it. Benton blabbed his guts out.” The mayor probably never heard me, but it felt good to shout.

Our other encounter came at the old Baltimore Children’s Museum, then housed in a strange castle-like mansion just north of the city line. It was the fall of 1980, at a luncheon event that I was attending, along with my wife Bonnie and our infant daughter Lauren.

Schaefer was sitting a few tables away. Bonnie had her camera. It was easy – just ask the mayor to hold Lauren for a few seconds, for a picture. It was quick, just a few awkward seconds, Lauren in his hands and the camera’s click. A strange moment – this lifelong bachelor holding our daughter, a look of surprise on his face.

Schaefer, despite 47 years in elective office, was not a man happy to hold a baby. I can't recall another such picture of him.

We’re glad we have this one.

(For more on Schaefer, check out my online op-ed at the Baltimore Business Journal, and a nice essay by my friend Michael Olesker for the Jewish Times. The Baltimore Sun Web site also has the enormous coverage that graced the Tuesday print editions.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spurning ‘Northern scum’

Wet, but hardy reenactors march along Baltimore's Pratt Street, where the first deaths of the Civil War occurred 150 years ago. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Baltimore celebrates
its inglorious history
from the Civil War

‘Pratt Street Riot’ wrought conflict’s first deaths

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Baltimore’s biggest and most inglorious contribution to the American Civil War, city leaders joined with several dozen costumed history reenactors Saturday to rededicate and reopen for visitors the historic President Street railroad station.

Here, soldiers from Massachusetts arrived on April 19, 1861, summoned by Abraham Lincoln to defend the nation’s capital in the wake of the confederate attack a week earlier taking control of the union’s Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

They had to change train lines in Baltimore – from the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad’s station to the venerable Baltimore and Ohio’s Camden Station just under a mile to the west. In between was a gauntlet of angry southern sympathizers whose greeting brought the city a new nickname: Mobtown.

Bottles and rocks, even stones ripped from the roadway, were thrown at the soldiers, and gunshots from both sides claimed at least 16 lives: The first deaths of a war that would rage for nearly four years and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands more. Among the four Massachusetts casualties recounted in displays at the old rail station was 17-year-old Pvt. Luther Ladd of Lowell, Mass., shot through an eye by a minnie ball.

Lincoln himself had to make the same rail transfer as he passed through Baltimore on the way to his inauguration a few weeks earlier, under the much-lampooned cover of darkness.

Baltimore of 2011 looks nothing like the rough-and-tumble city at the outbreak of the Civil War, the passage of time having seen the Great Fire of 1904 and periods of redevelopment – the latest having reclaimed the area around President Street. The rebuilt station was once largely a ruin in danger of collapse, and as a Civil War museum now is overshadowed by a 31-story Marriott hotel. Just down the street is an incongruous memorial to an ugly event in Poland during in World War II – the Katyn Forest Massacre.

Camden Station also survives, housing a pair of sports and entertainment museums and neighbor to the 1992-vintage Oriole Park at Camden Yards baseball stadium. But in keeping with the spirit of celebrating history, it has a display on Lincoln’s journey. And a bit further to the west, the B&O Railroad Museum has added pieces from the Civil War era as part of its commemoration.

The reopening of President Street Station reverses a trend that has seen the closing of several small museums in Baltimore in recent years. Key to its rescue have been more than two decades of efforts by a strong “friends” organization, and the more recent involvement of the Maryland Historical Society which has assumed a lease on the property.

Just across President Street is one of the shuttered attractions – Baltimore’s Public Works Museum, housed in an old brick sewage pumping station. Among the mysteries it addressed for visitors were how water gets from reservoirs to homes, and what happens to it after you flush the toilet.

Baltimore of 1861, then the nation’s fourth-largest city, had no such niceties.

Not that Baltimore of 2011 is without problems, including the still-unresolved question of identity: Is it, as many ask, the most southern city of the North or most northern city of the South?

At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was also a city of contradictions: It had strong southern leanings, and the nation’s largest population of free people of color. That minority population has grown over time, and become Baltimore’s majority. Amid the demographic transition, there seems to have been no issue of government or society untouched by matters of race. Housing patterns, school districting, church membership, bank loans, car insurance rates, medical care, welfare, politics – especially politics, during a gradual shift to better represent city demographics.

Baltimore’s fourth African-American mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, spoke briefly and took part in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the Civil War museum’s new book and souvenir shop. White City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose largely southeastern district reaches to President Street, read a passage from a pre-inaugural Lincoln speech emphasizing friendship across the political divide – followed by incendiary verses from a riot-inspired poem by James Ryder Randall.

The poem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” was subsequently set to music (as in “O Tannenbaum”) and became the official state song. But the verses Kraft read are not those heard in the shortened rendition performed by the U.S. Naval Academy chorus at the annual running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

Here’s some of the offensive verses:

The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the pariotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
“Sic semper!” 'tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!

I hear the distant thunder-hum,
The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum,
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!

(Interestingly, assassin and Maryland-born actor John Wilkes Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” after shooting Lincoln on April 14, 1865, five days short of the riot’s fourth anniversary.)

When Councilman Kraft noted the song’s official state status, a man in the back of the crowd inside the station retorted, “Change it!”

That’s been proposed periodically. But spurning “Northern scum” remains with us Marylanders, a relic easily as offensive as the Confederate battle flag. Go figure.

Despite miserable weather of wind and heavy rain – and, as a result, the mayor announcing that a planned grand procession along Pratt Street was canceled – the battle-hardy reenactors embarked with a motorized police escort on a ceremonial march north on President Street and west along Pratt.

A handful of Confederates walked along the adjacent sidewalks, protesting the passage of the Union soldiers on southern soil, and a lone man with slight beard shouted and waved a fist. It was a far cry from the bad old days of 1861.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake receives a plaque from Ralph Vincent, former director of Friends of President Street Station, commemorating the contribution of Civil War-era Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad President Samuel M. Felton. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)