The fifth installment of Hidden Maryland reveals William Donald Schaefer’s archives collection, which contains letters and photos from World War II, rubber ducks, political cartoons and more.
By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
“I don’t know the meaning of the word, love. Maybe I love her, maybe I don’t,” the young Army officer writes to his parents in Baltimore in early summer 1945.
“I really need to know — and in a hurry.”
The handwritten letter from Capt. William Donald Schaefer about nurse Lolita Cook brims with anxiety and the fear of loss tempered by the clear-eyed practicality that would later guide his political life. He contemplates a proposal of marriage that he ultimately never delivers.
“Cookie,” as he calls her, transfers to Japan, where she meets her husband.
“If they had married, the whole trajectory of Schaefer’s life might have changed,” said Robert Schoeberlein, the state archivist in charge of special collections. “He might have settled down, had a family and a law practice and stayed out of politics. Think how different Baltimore and Maryland might have been.”
When Schaefer left this world in April 2011, he traveled light. Many of his possessions — large and small, the serious and the silly — were turned over to the Maryland State Archives.
Cataloged and stored in Annapolis and nearby warehouses, the Schaefer collection is the largest of any single individual in the state’s possession.
The former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor and comptroller was an archivist’s dream and nightmare.
He didn’t throw away much.
In one box, there’s a baseball cap with fake seagull poop on it and a Halloween fright wig. Drafts of major legislation are tucked in another box. A frame holds an autographed poster of Hulk Hogan. A binder contains a 1995 speech defending the importance of America’s cities (“Cities … are the heartbeat of the country. I don’t believe we can abandon them without abandoning our heritage”).
The inventory includes what archivists call “Marylandia”: hats, plaques, commemorative license plates, letters from constituents both complimentary and not, and membership cards to just about anything you can think of.
“He had more membership cards than anyone,” said Schoeberlein. “There are probably hundreds.”
He kept a base from the 1993 baseball All-Star Game played at Camden Yards and signed by Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, and a plaque from the Baltimore Colts Marching Band.
The archives doesn’t have the yellow-and-red striped bathing suit then-Mayor Schaefer made famous in 1981 at the National Aquarium — that’s in a private collection. But it does have plenty of rubber ducks like the one that was part of the publicity stunt.
“We have lots of ducks,” said Maria Day, Schoeberlein’s deputy. “But we don’t know if we have the duck.”
People loved to give, and William Donald Schaefer loved to receive. No key chain was too cheap, no snow globe too chintzy for him.
“He tended to keep everything,” said Tim Baker, deputy archivist who was special aide to Schaefer in his first job out of college. “He was a frugal man who I think saw value in everything around him.”
The material began arriving at the archives while Schaefer was down the street in the governor’s office.
“He was well aware of the influence he had,” said Day. “He was clearly fascinated by things and he made sure his staff kept them in good order.”
His donations continued while he was state comptroller and carried over when he became a private citizen after a half-century of public service.
As a caretaker of his legacy, the archives staff is sorting through items in the Schaefer collection that most represent him in all facets of his life along with items he donated that represent Maryland history and culture spanning his lifetime. Some of the books from his home, and items such as his collection of fishing rods, were donated to other institutions.
The public doesn’t often get a glimpse of the Schaefer collection, mostly because there’s no good place to display it. Civic leaders have mentioned the World Trade Center lobby at the Inner Harbor, BWI Marshall Airport or the University of Maryland as possible sites for a permanent display.
But money, as always, is an issue.
“The most important items that represent Gov. Schaefer himself and that relate to Maryland will have a permanent home here,” said Day.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the collection are the letters and photos from World War II, when Schaefer was a hospital administrator in England. The facility tended to thousands of wounded servicemen returning from the front lines.
Although Schaefer kept his social distance from the staff he commanded, Cook caught his eye and won his heart.
Handmade albums hold photos of the two of them together in front of Westminster Abbey, in Piccadilly Circus and in the Irish countryside.
On the backs of the photos are Schaefer’s handwritten comments: “Ain’t that a great picture of a big building,” he said of the photo posed in front of Big Ben.
Another, with Cook tugging on his sleeve, is inscribed: “Dragging me out of the hotel (or in).”
The World War II-era memorabilia show a side of Schaefer, the man, not often seen after he became Schaefer, the politician.
“Sadly,” Baker said, the archives doesn’t have a return letter from Schaefer’s parents with marital advice for their son.
But it might not have mattered.
In a letter to his parents two weeks after his query on love, Schaefer announces that the couple has decided to wait until after the war to marry and that Cook is being transferred. He concludes, “I really need your strength, advice and leadership to pull me through this morale-shattering time.”
Then, there’s a final letter, full of sorrow, as Schaefer realizes the void in his life: “I see now that I should have married her before and not waited.”
Have a suggestion for a Hidden Maryland location? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/hiddenthoughts.
William Donald Schaefer archives
Where: Several warehouses across Maryland, including Annapolis
You never would’ve guessed that: Schaefer, who once pointed an unloaded semiautomatic pistol at a reporter during a 1993 Annapolis news conference, was an honorary member of the Maryland Press Club.
HIDDEN MARYLAND SERIES
Domino Sugars Sign
Building the Webb Telescope in NASA’s clean room
Baltimore Carmelite Monastery
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
William Donald Schaefer archives
Ladew Topiary Gardens
Ravens game broadcast
Orioles clubhouse kitchen
Inside the State House dome
Howard County police training center