Who's the most influential Baltimorean of all time?

From a Facebook post, a delicious question to ponder

Who is the most influential Baltimorean?

Is Mayor William Donald Schaefer -- pictured here with a mermaid at the aquarium in 1981 -- the most influential person in Baltimore history? (Lloyd Pearson, Baltimore Sun)

My former Baltimore Sun colleague Antero Pietila asks a big question on his Facebook page: "Who was the most influential Baltimorean of all time, and why?" It's a delicious ponderable, and the discussion it provoked has been going on for a week.

We should let everyone in on this.

We should convene a 90-minute symposium at one of the city universities, with six finalists from the nominees on Pietila's list, and each finalist with an advocate to make a time-limited oral argument.

The event would have a live video feed. The public would be the jury. We would be able to listen to each of the arguments and vote for a winner online or by text.

The whole thing would be followed by a lovely buffet.

With the right crew of advocates — say, Wes Moore arguing for Thurgood Marshall, Barbara Mikulski arguing for William Donald Schaefer, John Waters arguing for Wallis Warfield Simpson — this could be an entertaining and informative event, a local history nerd night with some real show-biz pizazz.

Of course, there have to be criteria.

Pietila's question is specific. He's not asking for the most famous or interesting Baltimorean of all time — Babe Ruth, Billie Holiday, Michael Phelps — but the most influential.

This would have to be someone who was born here or who lived here a long time (Baltimore college students Woodrow Wilson and Michael Bloomberg do not count). The nominee must have been a compelling force — an individual who, by actions and words, had the most profound and lasting effect on the city, the country or even the world.

From what I see on Pietila's post, Johns Hopkins is one of the leading candidates because of his sprawling legacy. He's followed by Schaefer and an earlier mayor and governor, Theodore McKeldin.

In terms of breadth of influence, Marshall would seem to be a strong case, maybe the strongest. It would be hard to argue against the Baltimore-born Supreme Court justice's influence on rights, equality and American society.

So, as you can see, we're talking big-picture stuff with this exercise.

There are dozens of civic leaders, merchants, philanthropists and local heroes who contributed to building and rebuilding the city in different eras. But "most influential of all time" is an extravagant standard to meet. In fact, I might have mentioned most of the people who ultimately would be nominees for this title, but more are welcome.

Now pardon me while I have an interlude ...

I just came across a remarkable Baltimorean who deserves some recognition, and this seems like a good time to tell you about him. I would not nominate Hugh Lennox Bond for "most influential," but based on a new history of Reconstruction, he certainly exhibited principled courage worthy of recognition.

Bond appears in Chapter 4 of historian Douglas Egerton's book, "The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era." While most of the book examines Reconstruction in the Confederate states, Egerton couldn't resist the example of active progressivism Bond provided in the border state of Maryland.

Bond was a Baltimore judge who came out of the Civil War radicalized and determined to help former slaves and other African-Americans. He hated the pro-Confederate sympathies of Maryland Democrats and became a Republican.

"He protested the policy of federal bonuses to white masters who enlisted their [slaves] in the military," Egerton reports. "[Bond] used his judicial perch to return apprenticed black children to their parents, and he championed the state constitution of 1864 that banned slavery and [freed] more than 80,000 black Marylanders."

He also advocated public education for blacks and criticized Baltimore businessmen and Methodist leaders for not supporting it. He received a lot of hate mail (and saved it all, according to Egerton), and one governor tried to have him impeached. Bond later became a federal judge. He's buried with other forgotten dignitaries in Green Mount Cemetery.

OK, so he's not "the most influential Baltimorean of all time," but he certainly deserves to be remembered. So there.

Now back to our column, still in progress ...

My nominee for "most influential Baltimore" is not as well known as others. But in the realm of public health, Abel Wolman is in a class by himself.

If you've heard this story from me before, sorry. I enjoy telling it:

Years ago, I encountered a public health researcher in a cab in Washington. When asked where I was from, I said Baltimore. The cabbie said, "Oh, home of H.L. Mencken." Said the scientist, "The home of Abel Wolman."

Wolman, a sanitary engineer and a pioneer of clean water, was an extraordinary man. His work on chlorination before World War II wiped out typhoid here and in communities around the globe.

He's also the reason our metropolitan area has such a great, safe public water system, and his work has been duplicated around the world. I could go on, but I'll save it for the symposium.

If we get into this, I'll argue for Abe.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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