Irascible. Opinionated. Unpolished. Obsessive. And most of all: impatient. William Donald Schaefer was all those things, and more. In a famous 1984 cover story, Esquire magazine referred to him as “Mayor Annoyed.” In the same heartbeat, it also proclaimed him America’s “Best Mayor.”
After the 1968 riot and ’70s recession, with Baltimore facing the double whammy of de-industrialization and suburban flight, Schaefer convinced those who stayed, like him, that they had to work harder, faster, and smarter. He put a chip on the city’s shoulder, convincing us that the whole world was out for Baltimore and that we needed to fight back together.
Today, the ever-growing Inner Harbor stands testament to his transformation of downtown, often by sheer force of will. (See also: the Convention Center, Light Rail, Metro Subway, Camden Yards, and the Ravens.) And after nearly 40 years, the featured image of William Donald Schaefer—in an old-fashioned striped bathing suit and wielding a giant rubber duck—at the opening of the National Aquarium remains an indelible reminder of the former mayor’s deep commitment to Baltimore.
To be sure, Schaefer had blind spots, notably in regard to public education and social services, but looking at City Hall’s current struggle to forward an agenda —i.e. selecting a police commissioner—many Baltimoreans of a certain age believe the city is missing his iconic ethos: Do It Now. “There was management and a strategy in place,” says planning aide Ron Kreitner. “There was also a sense of urgency. You had to be on your toes.”
Schaefer’s legendary attention to detail also remains memorable. “I remember pulling up to a redeveloped block of formerly vacant houses and spotting him, already there, pulling weeds from a tree pit,” recalls former planning aide Ron Kreitner. “He was the mayor and not above pulling weeds. That was the message and it wasn’t staged. He made us paint our own offices and he painted his, too.”
Those anecdotes about Schaefer driving around on weekends and looking for abandoned cars, broken streetlights, and trash-strewn lots, then blasting agency heads in Monday meetings? All true. “I never saw him angry at an average citizen, but he could get angry with a city employee or staffer—and a Sun reporter,” says Abell Foundation president Robert Embry, who also worked for Schaefer. “He understood he couldn’t do everything himself, so he needed to push others to do more. He was married to his job, and he loved the city—that’s why people admired him.”
With his bootstraps mentality, middle-class tastes, and Hochschild Kohn department store suits, he personified the Baltimore everyman—and left, thus far, an irreplaceable legacy, for the people, politicians, and his former staffers, which included many women. “One of my favorite people in the whole world ever,” says Sandy Hillman, Schaefer’s former head of tourism. “Best years of my life working for him. I saw him two months before he died and told him that. ‘Mayor’—he was always Mayor to me, even after he became Governor—‘I never one bad day in the office.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re delusional.’”