By A Sun Staff Writer
June 20, 2003
One of his closest friends can already predict what Walter Sondheim Jr., the self-effacing sage of Baltimore, is likely to say tomorrow night as he is honored, yet again, for another of his countless contributions to the city where he was born nearly 95 years ago.
"He's going to say: 'I don't know why they picked me. Twenty people must have turned them down,'" said Lainy LeBow-Sachs, a confidante for decades and a frequent dinner companion.
And just as Sondheim is receiving those accolades - this time from the Maryland Science Center - LeBow-Sachs figures she'll probably tell him, as she often does: "Walter, please don't make that speech again."
Another dinner in his honor. Another organization thanking Sondheim for the good he has done. Another chance for the ever-humble Sondheim - a one-time department store executive better known as an adviser to mayors and governors, as the man who helped oversee both the desegregation of the city schools and the transformation of Baltimore's Inner Harbor - to wonder why all the attention.
And there will be another reception next week, when Sondheim closes his second term as a member of the state school board. It's not as if at 94 he is actually retiring. That is certainly not in his nature.
This is a man who still puts on a suit and suspenders each morning and drives to work at the Greater Baltimore Committee, lunches with city dignitaries, attends meetings, has dinner with a full complement of friends, and does it again the next day. It's just that after eight years on the board, the law says his time there is up.
Not that such an accomplishment means the newspaper should write an article about him. He says there must a better use of all that ink. He thinks it's silly to make such a fuss.
"There's only one thing that's interesting about me and that's just sheer luck," Sondheim said. "It's that I'm almost 95 years old."
He doesn't have much advice for others on how to live a long and healthy life. Seems he doesn't watch what he eats, nor does he exercise - the last time he ran may have been as a student in the 1920s at The Park School. He practices none of the stuff they're preaching these days.
Instead, he makes time for friends, among them his late wife's brother, Richard Neustadt, a founding director of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Neustadt's wife, Baroness Shirley Williams, a former member of the British Parliament and co-founder of Britain's Social Democratic Party. And until a couple years ago, he squeezed in trips to foreign countries, invited to talk about how to revive their cities.
"He's very modest," explains state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, an octogenarian himself who has relied on Sondheim's counsel over his many years as Baltimore's mayor and then Maryland's governor.
Sondheim has held seats on dozens of local boards, won nearly every civic award this city's organizations give, been linked in some way to every important moment in the city for much of the last century. He is a living history lesson.
This is the man whose parents returned from their Niagara Falls honeymoon the day of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, who regularly drank beer with H.L. Mencken and his brother August, who is the father of the state's education reform which spawned the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).
"All young politicians, if they just had sense, they would go to him and sit down and talk to him hour after hour and get his advice and they would really come up with something good," Schaefer said.
Walter Sondheim was born July 25, 1908, at his family home in the 1600 block of Bolton Street, a house that he still drives over to see every now and then.
He recalls summers spent in the country - in Pikesville of all places, just miles from the city home, turned sauna in the stifling heat. The owners of those country homes, the doctors, professors, those with more money, would spend their summers at the beach. One summer while they were gone, when Sondheim was a young boy, his father told Walter and his sister a secret, the first one they weren't allowed to share with their mother.
Their house in the city, his father said, was being electrified. They would be among the first on their block to get power.
He graduated from the Park School in 1925, then from Haverford College in Pennsylvania in 1929, the first in his family to go to college. His father, who would go on to be well-known for his book collection, had been forced to quit City College before graduation when his own father died.
Sondheim graduated into the job market of 1929, in the moments leading up to the stock market crash and the Great Depression. He went to work in the executive training program at the old Hochschild, Kohn & Co. department store, where his father was an officer. "Sheer nepotism," he calls his hiring.
But he figures he was treated like everyone else there: He took the same 10 percent pay cut as his co-workers when times were tough.
In 1934, he married his wife, Janet, who danced with the Denishawn Dancers, the legendary troupe founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. He has a son and daughter, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Sondheim served in the Navy during World War II, shipped to Chicago and then to Cleveland, further from salt water than he had ever been as a civilian. In his unassuming way, he says, "I didn't interfere. If I had never put on a uniform, the United States would have won the war."
It was in 1948, in his 40th year, that he was asked to join the city school board. The way he tells it, Mayor Thomas D'Alessandro Jr. - known as "Big Tommy" - chose him because the Jewish seat on the board was to be vacant. "Big Tommy didn't want anything to do with the schools," Sondheim recalled. "He didn't want to be blamed for them."
A landmark case
In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown vs. Board of Education decision requiring school systems to desegregate their schools "with all deliberate speed," Sondheim was president of the Baltimore school board. Sondheim took the court's words to mean now and set about readying the schools for both black and white children by fall. In doing so, Baltimore became the first school district south of the Mason-Dixon Line to move on the court order.
"It would be fun for me to say it was a remarkable act on our part," he said. "I don't think it was. I think we were ready for it."
At the time, the mayor was in Bon Secours Hospital and Sondheim went to see him to talk about what was happening. "He said, 'I don't know whether you did the right thing but the priests here tell me you did the right thing,'" Sondheim recalled.
Once school started in the fall, and words were translated into action, there was some trouble. "We thought we were having riots. We were having what at best could be considered minor disturbances," he said. "It was not a popular decision. People are prejudiced. People were used to it. They wanted a segregated system."
He almost forgets to mention the cross - it was small, he says - that was burned on his front lawn.
The drama of 1954, though, was nothing like the one two years earlier. There was an emotional appeal that year by eight to 10 African-American students who wanted to get into the highly technical "A course" at Polytechnic Institute, which Sondheim called "the most prestigious engineering course in the country." Graduates were given sophomore standing at powerhouse schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.
The school board had previously decided to create a "separate but equal" A course at one of the black high schools. The Urban League protested, saying "separate but equal" couldn't be done with a program as prestigious as the one at Polytechnic. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People got involved and its attorney - future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall - gave an impassioned, finger-pointing argument.
The school board sided with them and allowed the African-American students to enroll at Polytechnic.
Sondheim went on to run the city's Urban Renewal and Housing Commission, something he says he didn't really want to leave the school board to do. But Big Tommy forced him into it, warning Sondheim that he would never get full funding for the schools if he stayed on the job.
"He looked at me and said, 'You know when you come down here and ask for that last $500,000?' He said, 'You'll never get it again,'" Sondheim recalled.
Reinventing the harbor
On the day Sondheim turned 62, he retired from the department store and moved on to his next project - the redevelopment of 32 acres that became Charles Center, with its offices and theater and plaza.
Then came his work that helped transform the Inner Harbor, the centerpiece of Baltimore's urban revitalization, a model recognized across the country. He helped spearhead the project and oversaw much of the changes to downtown.
The harbor had gone downhill after the war when a vibrant shipping industry started moving out. The bigger merchant ships were too large for the small basin. Some smaller ships still used the pier, mostly to bring Eastern Shore produce to the railroad, but trucking picked up after the war and cut into that business.
It became a place of abandoned buildings with drunks sleeping in doorways. There was an active wholesale food market in the wee hours of the morning but "the rest of the time it was left to the rats," he said.
Sondheim tells the story as he sits in the restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel, with its spectacular views of the harbor of today. Asked what it looked like in the 1960s, he replies: "I couldn't look at it because my mother wouldn't have let me go down there."
Sondheim retired again in the 1980s and took the job he holds now as a senior adviser at the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group that promotes the Baltimore region.
Retirement is a concept that scares Sondheim, but not as much as the concept of staying too long. "When you get to be my age people won't tell you you ought to retire and that worries me," Sondheim said.
Seven years ago, he wrote a letter to about a dozen of his closest friends asking that they let him know, through an anonymous letter if they must, when he should "hang up the spikes." None wrote back. He still worries that they're coddling the old man.
It is clear that they are not.
"I read that letter every month and I remind myself that first of all this is not the time [for him] to retire and I hope I would have that level of wisdom" to know when it was time for her to step down, said State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who has known Sondheim for more than 40 years since she had a summer job in the office of Hochschild, Kohn.
Sondheim muses it might be time for another letter. He has been mentioning it to his old friends. This one might come with a self-addressed stamped envelope, maybe just a check-off box so the authors wouldn't have to worry that Sondheim could decipher their identities.
"We said, 'Walter, you can do it, but we're throwing it in the trash,'" LeBow-Sachs said. "He's so afraid he's going to slip and people won't tell him. I would like to be that way when I'm 70, let alone 95."
Sondheim's last state school board meeting will be held Tuesday and Wednesday. He knows he leaves with unfinished business. The board must soon decide how - and whether - to link its new high school assessment tests to graduation. If the bar for graduation is set too high, there will be a flood of students who fail to earn their diplomas - and doubtless a flood of controversy. If the bar is set too low, the diplomas could be meaningless.
He worries that if it's done wrong, it could end up out of the hands of the school board - and into the hands of the Maryland Legislature. "In state after state where this has been done, a howl goes up," Sondheim said. "I would hate to have that happen here. I don't think we ought to rely on the legislature for that kind of education problem.
"I don't know the answer to this one," he said. "I don't envy them," he says of his soon-to-be former colleagues.
That kind of thoughtful discourse is what Marilyn D. Maultsby, the president of the school board, will miss.
"He's been the consummate statesman," she said. "I always refer to him as Mr. Accountability. He is steadfast in that."
"At my age," Sondheim says, "it's much easier to know the problems than know the solutions. The people younger than I am say they know the solutions.
"I hope they do, but I'm not so darn sure they do."