Farewell to Baltimore’s best storyteller

Many times I’ve sat in my car in my driveway, waiting to turn off the engine so I could hear the last bit of some fascinating or heart-tugging feature, usually on NPR. Those types of stories have been dubbed “driveway stories” to describe any authentic, well-told narrative that grabs your attention and won’t let go.

To me, telling such compelling stories is really what public relations is all about. Good PR people connect with and captivate their audience, turning storytelling into an art form.

One person who truly understood the value of good PR was William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor and comptroller credited with revitalizing Baltimore with his “do-it-now” work ethic, passed away last week at age 89.  Throughout his life, Schaefer worked tirelessly to promote the city he loved.  He wanted everyone to see his hometown as he saw it:  not as a laughing stock, but as a unique and delightful place to live, work and visit that ranked among the nation’s best.

An example of his PR prowess occurred back in 1981, when Schaefer famously followed through on his promise to jump into the seal tank at the National Aquarium if the new harbor attraction he spearheaded didn’t open on time. Behind the scenes, he dreaded donning the old-fashioned bathing suit and straw boater hat for fear he’d look like an idiot, or worse, make Baltimore look ridiculous in the process.  But jump in he did, holding an inflatable rubber duck. The rest, as they say, is history. He caught the attention of the nation and was subsequently featured in Esquire magazine as “the best mayor in America.” 

As the city says goodbye to Schaefer this week, The Baltimore Sun quoted many notable Baltimoreans who reflected on their feelings about the legendary figure’s impact. 

A former client of mine, Bronwyn Mayden, who worked for Schaefer when he was mayor and now serves as assistant dean of continuing professional education at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, commented on Schaefer’s devotion to Baltimore, saying, “His heart was in the city.”

Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, an adept storyteller in his own right, summed up Schaefer’s keen understanding of the value of telling Baltimore’s story this way: “He was always great to me, even when everybody else thought my movies were obscene. He used to say, ‘I don’t care what they are, just keep making them.'”

“I think it was just to keep the name of Baltimore out there,” Waters said.

Schaefer’s legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of the thousands of people he touched during his lifetime. But more importantly, perhaps, is his achievement of telling Baltimore’s story with genuine pride, passion and love, as only he could.

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