Remembering late governor from a reporter’s POV

The late William Donald Schaefer, former Maryland governor.

Historically speaking, William Donald Schaefer was perhaps one of Maryland’s more unforgettable politicians. For several decades, first as Baltimore mayor, then governor and comptroller, he left his stamp on Maryland politics. Though Schaefer was sometimes profane, bluff, and outspoken, he was always memorable. When I was a kid, I recall how we watched him on TV take a swim in the seal tank at the new National Aquarium in Baltimore, wearing an old-fashioned striped swimsuit. Now, there was an elected official who understood the value of a good publicity stunt.

Schaefer made no secret of the fact that he didn’t think much of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, once famously describing it as an outhouse (but using a less polite term). He never really made it clear whether he lumped Cecil County in with the rest of the “outhouse” counties, but it does say something that his visits were rather few and far between. Schaefer was a city boy at heart, and I think rural areas and the rural lifestyle were something he never really understod or appreciated.

Back in the early 1990s, I covered one of those visits as a newspaper reporter, and it was an experience that left me with a lasting impression of “Willie Don,” as he was sometimes nicknamed. Schaefer visited Conowingo Dam to tour the program where shad were caught in a trap below the dam, then trucked to spawning grounds upriver.

The governor wore a charcoal gray suit and tie, which was a bit overdressed for touring a fish lift. No golf shirt or rolled-up sleeves for him. Up close, I noticed he had sort of spooky blue eyes, the sort that don’t register much emotion. They were the sort of eyes that would have suited a machine gunner or a mafia don, and they probably served him well when the going got tough during budget meetings.

He eventually gave a sort of mini-speech about the visit at an impromptu press conference. In hindsight, I realize he must not have taken the tour too seriously, because he started out the speech relating how one of the  fish had been telling him how much he and the other shad enjoyed their trip across the dam. It was all a little wacky, and I was a little disappointed. This was supposed to be my big story about the governor’s visit to Cecil County! I had covered a lot of Elkton town meetings to get my big break! Now Schaefer was blowing it for me by going on about talking fish, for pity’s sake.

But he was nice enough to a backwater and barely old-enough-to-vote reporter, giving me a few minutes one on one to ask him about his impressions of the fish lift. I can’t remember what questions I managed to stammer out, but I’m sure they were pithy and biting questions along the lines of how he had enjoyed his visit.

Schaefer was notoriously hard to quote, and I soon found out why. The man did not speak in complete sentences or even complete thoughts. As a journalist, you find that some public people are very used to working with reporters because they will speak slowly and coherently when they know you are busy writing down their words. They’re old pros at the media game. Schaefer didn’t seem at all concerned about any coherent meaning.

A close proximity to what I jotted in my reporter’s notebook would be this: “Fish … crossing dam … great day for Chesapeake Bay … Save the Bay … beautiful Susquehanna River … wonderful program.”

Quoting Gov. Schaefer was like filling in the blanks for a Mad Lib, or using one of those refigerator magnet sets where you piece together sentences, thoughts and poems out of random words.

I only ever saw him one other time in person, and that was several years later when he was state comptroller, but not necessarily out of the limelight thanks to his sometimes outlandish remarks.

I was doing reserarch at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore for my “Rebel Train” Civil War novel, and took a break to have lunch with an old railroad conducter at a deli on Fort Avenue. That was a popular stop for city politicoes, and in came Schaefer. He was a regular, but his arrival still caused something of a stir. This was as close as Baltimore got to royalty or celebrity. I did not take the opportunity to remind him of what I’m sure was a captivatingly dull story I had written about his visit to the Conowingo Dam many years before.

It’s too soon to really judge Schaefer’s place in Maryland history, but for a newbie reporter—and those apparently talkative shad at Conowingo Dam—Gov. William Donald Schaefer always will be a fond memory.

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