- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

BALTIMORE (AP) — Walter Sondheim Jr., the civic and business leader who championed Baltimore’s downtown renaissance and guided the city through the desegregation of its schools, died Feb. 15 of pneumonia at Mercy Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said. He was 98.

Mr. Sondheim was a famously modest man who in 1999 was named one of the most important and influential Marylanders of the 20th century.

He was considered one of the architects of downtown development, and as an early member of the Greater Baltimore Committee pushed for projects such as the Charles Center, the Maryland Science Center and the Inner Harbor, which helped fuel the revitalization of the dying industrial city.

Mr. Sondheim was president of the Baltimore school board in the 1950s, when it decided to desegregate a prestigious engineering course at the Polytechnic Institute in response to black protests, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court mandated desegregation of public school systems across the country.

And after the Supreme Court’s decision, Mr. Sondheim and the school board decided to comply as quickly as possible, while many major cities employed a variety of tactics to delay compliance. Baltimore was the first district south of the Mason-Dixon line to comply with the order.

“The passing of Walter Sondheim Jr. means the end of an era, an era in which those with leadership, vision and determination could build a great city and chart a course that would bring about social justice and economic prosperity to our community,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat.

“Walter Sondheim was a giant of a man,” Mr. Cardin continued. “He did not seek the limelight, but sought only to do good works.”

William Donald Schaefer, a former governor and mayor, called Mr. Sondheim’s death “a tremendous loss” and said he was one of the smartest and kindest people he knew.

“Integrity. I’ve never known a man with so much integrity in my life,” Mr. Schaefer told the Baltimore Sun. “He would not sanction anything that was not right.”

Mr. Sondheim was born in Bolton Hill. He attended Park School and graduated from Haverford College in 1929. He then joined the old Hochschild Kohn department store, where his father worked, eventually becoming a vice president.

He served in the Navy during World War II.

He held several civic posts after his retirement, including president of the state school board.

Mr. Sondheim is survived by his son and daughter, two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter. His wife, Janet, died in 1992.

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