Schaefer's aquarium mermaid tells her tale, three decades later

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She had won a string of beauty pageants — and was the original St. Pauli Girl of beer advertising fame — so Debbie Walker, a blond model from Washington, D.C., was accustomed to her fair share of attention.

But she'd never seen anything like the morning of July 15, 1981.

She had to wear a skin-tight, sequined costume with a 15-foot train for that gig. A team of frogmen carried her across a makeshift pond and placed her on a rock. And as cameras from media outlets around the world clicked, flashed and rolled, three seals swam over to pay her a visit, followed by an equally frisky mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer.

The National Aquarium was to open in three weeks. The mayor was in the seal pool to pay off a bet. Walker, then 23, was his hired "mermaid," and images from the bizarre spectacle gave her a brief and unexpected moment of international fame she says she'll always remember.

"That wall of cameras was really intimidating," recalls Walker, 54, now a bank teller and part-time food columnist who lives in Ocean City. "I had no idea it was going to be as big a deal as it was. But it turned out to be the most fun I ever had on a job."

The 15-minute dip, perhaps the most brilliant stunt of Schaefer's 50-year career, got its start six months earlier when work on the National Aquarium in Baltimore — a $21 million civic project the mayor backed — was nearing completion.

When a reporter asked Schaefer if the place would open July 1 as planned, the famously blunt politician said that if it didn't, he'd jump into one of the tanks himself. The deadline passed unmet, and Schaefer made good on his word.

He donned an 1890s-era bathing suit that day, splashed around in the 70,000-gallon pool and clowned for a crowd of 300. The photo that ran the next morning in The Baltimore Sun — of the mayor mugging on the rock beside a beaming Walker — also appeared in newspapers as far away as Italy, Bulgaria and China.

Schaefer, of course, went on to become a two-term Maryland governor, then comptroller. Walker, who knew little of him before that day, followed his career from afar. And as the photo emerged and re-emerged in her life over the decades, she often saw it as a sort of benchmark for her own progress in life.

"I loved modeling," she says. "For a while there, I was like Cinderella with the glass slipper. Then came the pumpkin stage. … I've had my highs and lows, that's for sure, and I think I've been good with both. But I miss the spotlight, and I wouldn't mind returning."

For years, the spotlight seemed to find her. One of two daughters in a close-knit family, Deborah Lee Walker was a self-described tomboy who became a high school tennis champion. At 18, when she "discovered nail polish and makeup" and enrolled in the Barbizon School of Modeling, her life took a dramatic turn.

A slender blonde, Walker entered a succession of beauty contests and won them all, including titles as Miss World Virginia, "All-American Girl" for New York state (she competed in tennis there) and "Best Body on the Beach" in Ocean City. In 1977, she was picked as the original model in the successful St. Pauli Girl campaign.

With each win, she says, people seemed to crowd around with good wishes.

While doing a shoot for American Express, Walker met a successful restaurateur, Nick BeLer, co-founder of the Prime Rib restaurants in Baltimore and Washington. The pair began dating. BeLer backed Walker's acting studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre, flew her around the world to industry shows and five-star restaurants, and shared with her his love of restaurants and food.

At the urging of a New York agent, she was back in D.C. taking speech lessons when a local agency called with a crazy offer. Baltimore's mayor, they said, had lost a bet, was going to swim in a tank at the aquarium and needed someone to play a mermaid.

It wasn't Schaefer's first brush with the half-fish, half-woman figure of myth. Three years earlier, as the groundbreaking for the aquarium loomed, the mayor told his chief of staff, Joan Bereska, to do something to make the event more interesting.

Bereska secretly asked her secretary, Karen Blair, to play a mermaid. Dressed in a rental costume, Blair traveled through the harbor on a well-scrubbed garbage scow.

"Here [Schaefer] was with this grumpy face. standing with the director of public works with a four-pronged shovel. Up rises the [scow], and Karen says, 'Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor! I bring you greetings from King Neptune!' He looks over at me and says, 'God almighty,' and the people cheered," Bereska says.

The team planned Walker's appearance in more detail, driving her to a Towson tailor who custom-made her spangly blue-and-green outfit, complete with mermaid's monotail, long frilly train and no holes for legs or feet. "It was beautiful, but I couldn't walk two inches in it," she recalls, laughing.

There were other oddities about the "splash heard 'round the world," as Schaefer's biographer, C. Fraser Smith, called it. Men in wetsuits carried her, Cleopatra-style, to the raised stone, where she watched as the mayor stepped from the building, removed a zebra-striped robe to reveal the Victorian-style suit beneath, and — armed with two inflatable rubber ducks — walked down a set of steps into the pool until his hat floated.

Schaefer's long-time aide, Lainy LeBow-Sachs, now a vice president at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, helped him get dressed that morning. He "felt stupid in that costume" at first, she says, but once the proceedings began, his instincts took over.

"I'm a man of my word," he announced as he flapped in the water, according to newspaper accounts. "It would have been beneath my dignity to make a promise and not keep it!"

"He was goofing off like you wouldn't believe," LeBow-Sachs says. "What an actor."

Photographers snapped away, including Sun staffer Lloyd Pearson, the man who took the famed image of the Mayflower vans that moved the Colts from Baltimore under cover of darkness three years later.

Editors included both images in a May 2012 issue of the Sun Magazine that commemorated the newspaper's 175th anniversary.

Walker, too, remembers Schaefer's gift for clowning — "he was really in his element," she says — and recalls how a friendly seal approached her, jabbed at the stone with his fin, and barked in a friendly way.

Then, she says, the 59-year-old mayor splashed over and offered his cheek for a smooch. She obliged, he placed his hat over his heart, and Pearson captured the moment.

"We didn't exchange two words," Walker says. "It was just the kiss. If I had to choose one or the other, I'd still go for the kiss. It's more fun."

As he got out, the mayor told reporters she was a lot prettier than the seals. Images of the day appeared in Time and Newsweek and on "Good Morning America," taking his maverick reputation international.

Walker gave up modeling not long afterward, largely because she was spending so much time with BeLer. During their 15-year relationship, she developed a passion for cooking, made suggestions he worked into his businesses, and came to love Ocean City, where she has had a house near the beach since 1994.

"The dream ended," she says, when BeLer, who was 25 years her senior, died in 1998. The couple never married.

Walker gained, and later lost, scores of pounds. She took up working at the bank and got a part-time cashier's job at Food Lion. She parlayed her love of the culinary arts into "Food For Thought," a weekly column she writes for an Ocean City newspaper, and a children's cooking class she teaches each summer.

Even though she must still work all four jobs, Walker says she's grateful for her "pumpkin phase." The summer classes are always full. She has invented a creamy low-fat dressing for children, Strawberries 'n Cream, and hopes a distributor will pick it up. "I was on the anti-obesity thing early," she says.

She's now working on an idea for a TV cooking show and loves peppering her food column with lessons life has taught her, like the recent one in which she reprinted a recipe from her grandmother, then reflected on the old woman's passing.

"Accepting change," she wrote, "marks the birth of trust and signifies maturity. Maybe if I keep repeating these words, I will [believe them]."

She might have been describing the way she felt in May when The Sun republished the picture. She was so excited she called in to order a print for her father, who lives in Howard County. But seeing herself with Schaefer again reminded her how long ago she wore the sparkly fins.

"So much has changed since those times," the former beauty queen says. "It's hard not to miss them."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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