William Donald Schaefer, Former Maryland Governor, Dies At Age 89

04/18/2011 11:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- William Donald Schaefer, the colorfully outspoken and combative Maryland governor and four-term Baltimore mayor who oversaw the transformation of downtown from a gritty center of urban decay into a tourist attraction, died Monday. He was 89.

Schaefer, who was hospitalized with pneumonia earlier this month, died at his home at the Charlestown retirement community outside Baltimore, former aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs.

Schaefer was mayor from 1971 to 1986 and battled to fill potholes as mayor and never missed an opportunity to tout his hometown, even jumping in a seal pool while wearing a turn-of-the century bathing suit and holding a rubber ducky to promote a new aquarium.

"He showed up at all these routine groundbreakings and he would wear the silly hat, he would make the funny face, he would stick his tongue out at the reporters," said Schaefer's former press secretary, Bob Douglas. "He was elevating the routine into the special."

The Democrat was a Maryland political icon who held statewide office into his 80s. But his brashness and unpredictability made for a tumultuous two terms as governor, starting in 1987. Fellow politicians and citizens who did not agree with him felt his wrath. He tracked down a woman who made a rude gesture to him and wrote her, "Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face."

Schaefer disliked being called a "bricks-and-mortar" politician. But he built his reputation as a man who got things done with projects such Baltimore's Inner Harbor and a new stadium for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.

The biggest gift Schaefer gave Baltimore was his spirit, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday night as she stood near a statue of Schaefer at the Inner Harbor.

"He gave Baltimore city a spirit of possibilities a spirit that we had a promising future," she said. "If you looked around at the Baltimore that he saw, there were a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the future of Baltimore. He used all of his strength, his political acumen, his personality, his drive to grow our city."

He approached every task with intensity. His philosophy was summed up by his two favorite phrases: "Do it now" and "Time is not on our side."

Current Gov. Martin O'Malley said Schaefer "demonstrated an unrelenting drive to make Maryland a better place.

"William Donald Schaefer loved his city and his state with great exuberance because there was nothing more important to him than the people that he served with such loyalty."

Schaefer's success as mayor helped him to a landslide victory in the 1986 gubernatorial race, when he got 82 percent of the vote. But the unconventional leadership style and prickly personality that made him a popular mayor did not work well at the state level.

When citizens criticized him in letters to newspapers or calls to radio shows, Schaefer called them on the phone or wrote them nasty letters. "You are everything that speaks of stupidity," he wrote one critic. He dropped in unannounced at the home of another critic to drink coffee and defend himself.

He infuriated Eastern Shore residents, many of whom never forgave him, by making an offhand joke likening their farming region to an outhouse.

He was impatient and demanding, often feuding with fellow elected officials who did not do what he wanted fast enough.

"He's quite autocratic. Everything has to be done his way," said former Sen. Julian Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat.

During an uneasy four-year hiatus from public life, the retired governor missed the spotlight and a forgiving electorate welcomed him back in 1998 as state comptroller.

It did not take long for the old Schaefer to emerge. He quickly renewed a feud with then-Gov. Parris Glendening, criticizing him as they sat side by side at Board of Public Works meetings.

While Schaefer's loose tongue enlivened meetings, it also got him in trouble. He made headlines in 2006 after telling a 24-year-old female aide to walk past him again in a public meeting to ogle her backside. He also made news that year for criticizing the expense of educating illegal immigrants.

Schaefer ended up losing the Democratic primary in his re-election bid months later, coming in third in a three-way race.

Schaefer's independent temperament was exemplified in 2008 when a longtime aide had to work behind his back to move him to a retirement community. Schaefer was taken to lunch while movers packed up belongings at his Pasadena townhouse, where the lifelong bachelor lived alone.


Associated Press Writer Brian Witte contributed to this story.