Whatever you called him - Mr. Mayor, Governor, Hizzoner, Willie Don, Don or Mr. Schaefer - William Donald Schaefer, who passed away at 89 last week, wasn’t some egomaniacal politician who craved the spotlight at the expense of the people who voted him into office.
Truth be told, Schaefer was never really comfortable in the spotlight and eschewed being the center of attention, though he often drew it. That well-publicized dip in the seal pool at the National Aquarium? Look carefully and you see the slightest hint of embarrassment on the then-mayor’s face as he clutched a rubber ducky and made eye contact with a faux mermaid. He knew he was doing the right thing, a good thing, even if it made him look silly in perpetuity.
When an appreciative city unveiled a life-sized statue of the man whose mandate was “Do it now!” at Harborplace in November 2009, the thoughtful, forward-thinking man whose vision for the city he loved created the Baltimore he knew could exist was clearly uncomfortable, even though he played to the news cameras to look uneasy. It was Schaefer’s worst nightmare when the city and state flags were raised to reveal his bronze likeness amid a shower of confetti and heartfelt cheers: the focus was on him, the one place he most disliked it being. In return, he offered a combination of gratitude and humility, an odd pairing in someone who made politics a career, along with his usual self-deprecating humor.
Even in death, as touching eulogies and personal stories have poured out for the past week, Schaefer would have cringed but for one thing: Each anecdote, every news report, countless memories mention the good that he did for his hometown and his home state. That’s all that really mattered to Schaefer: touching people by doing good, remembering that doing the right thing was important and making sure that his constituents, whether they voted for him or not, were taken care of.
Camden Yards, of course, is a shining example of his belief that even that which was considered impossible could not only be done, but become the gold standard. After the Colts snuck out of Charm City in the darkness and flurries back in 1984, after the city and state were confounded at every turn in their efforts to prevent the departure, Schaefer worried that the same thing could happen to the Orioles. He knew charming old Memorial Stadium was on the path to being an anachronism and was fearful of losing another professional team because it couldn’t compete on a level playing field with the rest of Major League Baseball.
But a downtown stadium? The critics said it couldn’t be done. Put the new ballpark at the confluence of the Beltway and Interstate 95, they begged. Anywhere but downtown. Sure, Harborplace had become a shining example of urban renaissance, but fans wouldn’t go downtown - a few blocks from a white elephant of an arena that had buried basketball and hockey teams - to watch the national pastime. But every time someone criticized the plan for a downtown ballpark, it strengthened Schaefer’s resolve. By then, he was governor, playing to a larger audience but never forgetting his humble roots.
You know how the story turned out. Oriole Park at Camden Yards debuted in 1992 and proved the naysayers wrong. Retro worked just fine, the downtown location was more perfect that anyone could have imagined and the television broadcasts showed a beautiful Baltimore skyline only a long fly ball from Harborplace, with Camden Street connecting the two popular destinations. Suddenly, people weren’t afraid to venture away from the harbor and the ballpark provided a line between two dots frequently connected by tourists and residents alike.
Schaefer was never much of a sports fan. Once, while touring other ballparks before Camden Yards’ construction, he suggested the inclusion of an eye-catching fountain beyond the outfield because he considered baseball “boring.” He came to games when he had to, not because he wanted to. But he was a staunch ally of the Orioles, and took any criticism of the team personally. After all, the O’s were Baltimore, and Schaefer adored Baltimore.
One time, when there were whispers that the new football stadium that lured the Ravens from Cleveland should be named in his honor, Schaefer quickly dashed fleeting speculation. He didn’t see any need for such plaudits. A winning team and happy fans were all the thanks he required. His name, however, does appear at Camden Yards, even if most fans who pass it regularly aren’t aware. The courtyard outside the home plate entrance is called Schaefer Circle, and name of a man who will forever be considered among Baltimore’s favorite sons is on a bronze plaque to the right of the entrance off his eponymous brick gathering place, a favorite haunt of folks seeking autographs. They’re smiling, happy baseball fans who push through turnstiles, pay for tickets and contribute to the bottom lines and tax bases in Baltimore and Maryland.
Every fan that walks up to Camden Yards and admires its inviting facade owes a debt of gratitude to Schaefer’s uncanny ability to appreciate - and, most times, accomplish - what might be possible. When the procession this afternoon that will return Schaefer to Baltimore one final time stops at Camden Yards, it will be more than a ceremonial gesture. It will be a chance for fans, the Orioles organization, Maryland Stadium Authority workers, a marching band playing upbeat tunes and Baltimoreans from all walks of life to remember the man that made it all possible, a career politician who only wanted to do right by the people he served. And to thank him for always finding a way to make his city better.