Celebrating Schaefer, and Ourselves

… A city gazes backward, but should also look forward …


By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

9:27 PM EDT, April 26, 2011

There were hats, of course, straw boaters at the aquarium and Preakness-worthy confections in Mount Vernon. Then there was the quirkier haberdashery, like a purple top hat one man in Federal Hill swept off as he bowed with a flourish when William Donald Schaefer’s casket passed by.

There were tribal shout-outs — “Edgewood Street!” one guy kept booming, except he wasn’t on Edgewood Street but just proud to hail from it — and old campaign buttons and faded photos and, most of all, memories hauled out of the collective basement of a city that almost pathologically hoards them.

In other words, it was a Schaeferfest, not much different from one of those self-celebratory street fairs that the then-mayor constantly was hosting during his Baltimore-is-Best, Pink-Positive years. Like the faded posters from this or that year’s City Fair that still turn up at yard sales, there was something out of time about the surge of emotions that followed Schaefer’s death April 18.

In his life, Schaefer celebrated Baltimore; in his death, Baltimore has celebrated him. But like all intimate relationships, the one between Schaefer and Baltimore is complicated.

Baltimore has rarely if ever seen the kind of send-off that the city began giving Schaefer on Monday, when a motorcade ferrying his casket home drew a remarkable array of residents out to porches, street corners and landmarks. In a city often divided by race and economics, hundreds of Baltimoreans of seemingly every stripe had one of those communal experiences that generally only follow some kind of sports championship. Instead, it was simply a caravan taking a late mayor and governor from his childhood home on, yes, Edgewood Street to the peak of his public life, City Hall.

But since his passing, it seems, everyone had a Schaefer story to share, from chance encounters to near-lifelong associations, from potholes repaired to careers launched. There were accolades, for sure, but this was no simple love feast. Instead, many reminiscences began along such lines as, “I didn’t always agree with him, but …” Or, “He could be difficult, but …”

And there was no real consensus on who it was that we were commemorating: Was it Schaefer, the patron saint of Baltimore neighborhoods, or Schaefer, the downtown developers’ best friend? Was it the Schaefer of small kindnesses, or the Schaefer of impatient, staff-abusing demands?

Or was it simply the Schaefer of a time in our civic life that we recall fondly, that looms so much brighter and more hopeful than the one we find ourselves in now?

Schaefer’s death tapped into a latent need for Baltimore to celebrate its past once again. At a time when real life imitates “The Wire,” which of course imitated real life, perhaps it’s no wonder Baltimoreans were ripe for an opportunity to relive those so-called Baltimore renaissance years.

Maybe that renaissance couldn’t be sustained forever. Maybe we’re not sure what the post-renaissance is supposed to look like.

In truth, the myth of Schaefer almost didn’t survive the reality of Schaefer, or at least the reality that came with a bigger office. While he had multiple triumphs as governor, somehow, the farther he got from Baltimore, the less people “got” him. Instead of the charm of a mayor who would stop and ask about your window boxes, you had a thin-skinned governor who had state troopers trace the license plate number of a driver who gave him a thumbs-down. By the time he left the governor’s office, polls showed his popularity had plummeted — everywhere but Baltimore.

So it’s fitting that the locus of his memorials were here in his hometown. Schaefer embodied Baltimore’s sense of itself as the smallest big city. That’s what Baltimore has felt like, in any event, this past week, as hundreds stationed themselves on his motorcade route on Monday and lined up at City Hall, where he was lying in state through Tuesday night.

Those lines, often with several dozen people at a time on Fayette Street, looked much like the crowd that turns up for those occasional parking-ticket amnesty days. This time, though, there was an air of occasion hovering over the proceedings, as people approached the flag-draped casket flanked by mannequin-still honor guards in the rotunda of City Hall.

Some treaded carefully to place themselves exactly at the center of the city seal on the marble floor. Others wandered around in awkward circles, losing their direction as they gawked upward at the soaring atrium, topped by a stained-glass dome.

Like at a pharmacy, those in line gave each person in front of them private time with Schaefer before approaching themselves. During lunch hour, the Baltimore City College Choir, from the high school he attended, sang hymns from the second-floor balcony, their young voices turning the marble space into something of a civic cathedral.

For all the hushed trappings, though, this was still Schaefer. People just walked right up and touched his casket, the way they reached out to the shiny hearse as it rolled slowly through town on Monday or popped their heads into the windows of the limousines carrying his former aides and friends.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” strangers would say to those inside, the stand-in family for the lifelong bachelor.

The response surprised even Schaefer’s loyal band of former aides, who took to planning the boss’ farewell as if he had issued one of his “action memos.” They stage-managed the events down to the finest details, such as the endless pots of African violets that would be proffered along the motorcade route, from the black-uniformed Sab’s waitresses in Little Italy to the homeless advocates on Fallsway.

But it was the spontaneity and heartfelt reaction of the crowds that turned the procession almost festive, a local version of the New Orleans jazz funeral. Schaefer’s “family” was heartened, imagining the boss lapping up the love even as the reality of his loss started to sink in. Soon, they knew, the trip down memory lane would end, and they would return to whatever a post-Schaefer world looks like.

Schaefer famously never let himself lapse into satisfaction. Even as Harborplace opened, he was asking his staff: What next? What else could they come up with?

The most common sentiment this past week has been that there will never be another Schaefer. True enough. But surely Schaefer’s greatest legacy would be a city that produces someone else as forward-looking as he was.


Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun


… May he R.I.P. …


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