In Baltimore, Schaefer Recalled as ‘Icon,’ ‘Good Man’ Who Cared

… Wide-ranging legacy of former mayor, governor seen across state, in city tourism …

By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

2:01 PM EDT, April 19, 2011

Jon Koscher brought his coffee and muffin Tuesday morning to the statue of William Donald Schaefer at the Inner Harbor to pay his respects to the man he called the “founding father of tourism in Baltimore.”

“If you ever met the man, you’ll never forget it, and if you haven’t met him, just look around,” Koscher said of the former mayor, governor and comptroller, who died Monday at 89 after a political career that spanned decades.

Koscher, the general manager of the Sheraton Inner Harbor, worked with Schaefer on commissions for the downtown convention center. Now, tourism is one of the city’s largest industries.

“He was an icon,” Koscher said. “He deserves a lot of credit.”

All over Baltimore, people recalled Schaefer and the legacy he left across the state. Schaefer promoted Inner Harbor projects such as Harborplace, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the National Aquarium.

Sue Fiedler of Connecticut and her family stopped Tuesday in Baltimore to walk through the Inner Harbor on their way to visit Washington. She remembered learning about the harbor while studying to become a landscape architect.

“It was one of the first places … where a city took their waterfront back,” she said. “It became a model.”

The aquarium was the backdrop for one of Schaefer’s most infamous stunts: his 1981 dip in the seal pool, while dressed in an old-fashioned, wool bathing suit, fulfilling a promise he made if the attraction did not open on time.

Dave Pittenger, now the aquarium’s executive director, was there for the one-of-a-kind, media extravaganza.

“We probably would never do that again,” he said.

The harbor and gray seals that lived in the exhibit were rescued animals that were used to being around people but “they were not used to having people that close to them,” Pittenger said.

The curator of the exhibit was also there, just in case something went wrong, but the seals just swam around.

“It was like a lot of things Schaefer did — a little bit risky,” said Pittenger, who was education director at the time.

Images of the event were published in newspapers all over the world.

“It just showed kind of the humorous side of him, and that’s really what a lot of us saw,” Pittenger said.

Today, more than 70 percent of aquarium visitors are from out of state, according to Pittenger. Schaefer “really put Baltimore on the map in an environment where there’s lots of competition,” he said, with the city sandwiched between Philadelphia and Washington.

“I like to claim it’s all the aquarium,” Pittenger said. But he recognizes that the Inner Harbor as a whole makes it an attractive destination. “It’s the aquarium in a very walkable environment, with lots of other things to do.”

Gene Raynor, a longtime friend of Schaefer’s who served as his campaign manager during the Baltimore native’s first two runs for comptroller, said Schaefer loved the city and loved being called “Mr. Mayor.” But he wanted to be remembered for what he did to help people, Raynor said.

“You can’t go five miles in any direction in this state that you can’t see something he did,” Raynor said Tuesday at Jimmy’s restaurant in Fells Point, around the corner from Schaefer’s former campaign headquarters.

He cited Schaefer’s efforts to get overpasses built on the old drawbridges to Ocean City, which cut down on travel time to the beach, and the square installed in Fells Point at the foot of Broadway.

Jimmy’s owner Nick Filipidis said the former governor would hold court in the back of his restaurant, at a spot now known as the William Donald Schaefer table, while enjoying a plate of scrambled eggs, potatoes, rye toast and ketchup.

Filipidis described Schaefer’s passing as “heartbreaking.” He recalled how, as mayor, Schaefer sent his staff out to interview residents and business owners, to find out if they needed any help.

“He was a really good man,” Filipidis said. “He really did care about Baltimore.”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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