Hall of Fame - Page 8 - Robert C. Embry Jr.

Hall of Fame
- Page 8
Robert C. Embry Jr.
More than 5 decades after he returned home, it’s impossible to imagine Baltimore without him

BACKGROUND

Age: 81

Born: Baltimore

Education: City College High School, Williams College, Harvard School of Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard Law School

Career: Law clerk, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals; attorney, Venable; member of the Baltimore City Council; director of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development; assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; principal, Cordish Embry & Associates; president, Abell Foundation

Civic engagement: President, Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners; president, Maryland State Board of Education; member of various nonprofit boards

Family: Married to Mary Ann Mears; four daughters, Elizabeth, Katherine, Clair and Julia; two grandchildren

When Robert C. Embry Jr. left Baltimore for college, he almost didn’tcome back. He thought hewould go into the foreign service , and he went so far as to study the MiddleEast in graduate school at Harvard. But somewhere along the way, he looked around at his classmates at Harvard Law and concluded that he was not unique, that there were plenty of other people who could do the same things he could at the State Department, and that he could accomplishmuchmore by coming home.

Those who have known Mr. Embry in the decades sincewould probably dispute the idea that he could fail to be unique. But the second part — that he had the ability to accomplish something special in Baltimore — is beyond debate. It is as impossible to imagine him anywhere but Baltimore as it is to imagine Baltimore without him.

Shortly after returning home, he won a seat on the City Council. He served for just a few months before then-Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III recruited him to run the newly created Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.

“He is a class act,” Mr. D’Alessandro says. “He was very well versed in city affairs. I thought he would be the best guy for the new department.”

In that role, which he continued into the WilliamDonaldSchaefer administration,hewasadriving force in the development of Charles Center, Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the convention center and the subway system. He was responsible for the dollar-house program and for Baltimore’s move away fromhigh-rise public housing for families.

Mr. Embry worked in urban development for the Carter administration, then came back to Baltimore to team up with developerDavidCordish,whomhe had knownsince high school, to tackle complex urban redevelopment projects.

He was serving as president of the city school board in 1987 when another opportunity opened up. The sale of The Sun multiplied the assets of the A.S. Abell Company Foundation eight times over, and Mr. Embry was among those the Abell trustees talked to in Baltimore to determine the focus it should take. He minced no words: The Sun made its money off the city, and that’s where the foundation that grew from it should be focused.

Baltimore suffered from tremendous racial disparities, The Sun had an unfortunate history in that regard, and addressing that should be its central mission. The trustees offered him the job.

“We thought Bob offered the best prospect of helping to change the landscape,” says W. Shepherdson Abell, who chairs the foundation’s board.

Mr. Embry, who had never thought about running a foundation, hesitated, but not for long.

“I said, ‘It’s got you written all over it,’ ” Mr. Cordish recalls. “You’ve been great here with us, but your heart is there.”

Mr. Embry got the foundation deeply involved in education, supporting initiatives like College Bound and the Ingenuity Project and providing resources for the landmark, ACLU-led lawsuit over city schools funding. Abell worked on Baltimore’s chronic health problems. It tackled housing segregation and was a crucial player in litigation that has helped thousands of families who receive public housing vouchers to move to neighborhoods with better schools and job prospects.

“He’s almost singular in his willingness to skewer sacred cows,” says says the education advocate Kalman R. “Buzzy” Hettleman, a friend since the1960s.“He has a never-ending curiosity and a willingness to do things in a different way.”

That goes for how he runs the foundation too. He made Abell a pioneer in direct equity investment – rather than putting all of its endowment in stocks and bonds, Mr. Embry has directed the foundation to invest in startups that do some good for mankind that are located in Baltimore or willing to move here. It has provided the foundation with a good return and created more than1,200 jobs locally.

“His creativity, his risk-taking, his insight into the issues facing Baltimore are unique," says Mary Page Michel, an Abell trustee whose mother, the late Sally Michel, was a lifelong friend and “intellectual soulmate” with Mr. Embry when it comes to improving the lives of Baltimoreans. “I can’t imagine what Baltimore would look like without him.”