On one of his earliest days as mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer marched into City Hall and offered cheerful greetings to the veteran WJZ-TV reporter George Baumann.
"You're looking well today, George," said Schaefer.
"So are you, Mr. Mayor," said Baumann.
"Nope, nope. No, I don't," said Schaefer. "My head's too big, and I walk like a duck."
Well, he was a kind of odd duck, wasn't he? That melon head, those suits that seemed swiped from somebody's attic, that instinct for self-pity, the house he still shared with his mom, those furious Action Memos he'd send out to frazzled staffers: "There is an abandoned car . . . but I'm not telling you where it is."
He was an odd one to bring a lifeless, beaten city back from the edge of the grave. But he did it, and it's his epitaph now. Forty years ago he took over a town where the embers of the '68 riots were still smoldering. The public schools were losing all children whose parents could afford a private school or a home in safe suburbia, and the big downtown department stores were all moving to air-conditioned malls. The drug traffickers were taking over entire blocks, and downtown was utterly deserted after dark, and the sense of fear and antagonism was everywhere.
And what did Schaefer do? First, surrounded himself with the smartest people he could find, such as Bob Embry and Walter Sondheim, Mark Joseph and Jim Rouse, Sandy Hillman and Joan Bereska, Janet Hoffman and Hope Quackenbush. (Note the number of women. At the end, Schaefer was ripped for uttering a few sexist remarks. But, from the beginning, he was far ahead of his time hiring smart, independent women and not making a big deal out of it.)
Second, he launched the Big Lie: Baltimore is Best, he told us in a famous public relations campaign. Everybody looked around in wonder. Was he nuts? The city's having a heart attack, and he's waving pom-poms? How dumb did he think we were?
But it got our attention. Those who stuck around decided to take him seriously. What the hell? He was our last, best hope.
Third, he learned to beg creatively. He'd beg in Annapolis, and come back with millions for a convention center or a ballpark. Then he'd beg in Washington. One time, he met with George Romney, who was Richard Nixon's housing secretary. Schaefer pitched a bunch of projects; Romney stifled a few yawns. This left Schaefer with no choice. He started to tear Romney's head off.
"You don't understand what's going on in cities," Schaefer hollered. "You sit here and pretend to care. But you don't have any idea what's happening to people affected by your decisions."
"You can't come in here and talk to me like that," Romney said.
So Schaefer hollered louder. He was letting it all out of his system, all the frustration with decayed housing and trashy alleys and unfilled pot holes, all the crap everybody else found too demeaning to deal with.
"You just don't care," he thundered. "You don't even know what a neighborhood is."
By now, the two men were leaning across opposite sides of a table and calling each other names. The meeting was over in minutes. Schaefer and his aides drove back to Baltimore imagining the worst.
But then a wonderful thing happened: Romney came through on everything, and Schaefer's city got federal money for five big development projects.
He was an odd duck, but he was ours. When he ran for mayor the first time, the country was still stirred by memories of the Kennedys, and by New York's charismatic John Lindsay.
"Let's get one thing straight," Schaefer said in that first mayoral campaign. "I'm dull. I am a dull man." Try, for a moment, to reconcile that description with the fellow who famously waded into the seal pool at the Aquarium. By then, he was learning to adapt.
But he knew who he was. "I'm dull," he insisted. "I am. But this is my life. Somebody's gotta worry about getting the grass cut, and somebody's gotta worry about the window sills being clean. Somebody's gotta worry about . . ."
He was off on a long toot then, sounding like a fussy hausfrau. But his attention to the basics, and his ferocity, saved a city. When he became governor he did a decent job, but hated it. He longed for a pot hole to fill, something where you could see the results right away.
One day, he was asked for his political philosophy.
"I can sum it up in a single word," he declared, missing by only two. "People and caring."
It sounded corny. But, for all those who'd stuck around through the tough comeback years, it felt like an official municipal embrace.