ANNAPOLIS -- She began as a footnote. The day William Donald Schaefer took over as governor of Maryland, longtime sidekick Hilda Mae Snoops got the modest title of Official State Hostess, and an option on rooms in the Governor's Mansion.

But when Snoops holds the Bible for Schaefer's second inauguration today, she will have earned a chapter of her own in the state's history. During the past four years, Snoops has undergone a not completely comfortable transformation from West Baltimore curiosity into one of Maryland's most talked about, but still elusive, public figures.

During the fall campaign, her redecorating projects -- the Governor's Mansion, its grounds, the state yacht -- received as much attention from the press and public as some candidates on the Schaefer ticket. By campaign's end, even members of the governor's staff were chafing at her style, a sometimes imperious mix of barbs and banishments centered, observers say, on a central objective: protecting Schaefer and herself from perceived slights.

Two staffers arrive early at the mansion for a campaign event. Snoops sends them packing.

This isn't a bus stop.

The same fate awaits a press aide who arrives to help with a hastily planned meeting.

This isn't your event.

Another dresses a bit too flashily for Snoops's beige and brocade taste.

Are you trying to embarrass the governor?

Her temper, statehouse sources say, is ignitable by anything from a legislative aide's beard to a blunder by one of the state troopers who guard the mansion. "You just kind of walk on eggshells. ... You don't know what sets her off," said says one lobbyist who claimed to be on Snoops's "good side."

The fallout has been felt even at the next-to-highest level of state government. During Schaefer's first term, lobbyists and staff members noted that Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg had fallen from the A-list for events at the mansion. To Steinberg, who has weathered the scandals of Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel and the doldrums of Harry Hughes, it is just another hazard of life in Annapolis.

"I have been around for 24 years. ... A lot of people surrounding me may be uptight more with being snubbed or not included," Steinberg says. "Those type of small things don't bother me."

"People talk, talk, talk," says Schaefer's scheduler, Lainy M. LeBow, good-naturedly dismissing the array of Hilda Mae stories that ran the Annapolis gossip circuit last fall. "She has a style, my style is different. ... Campaign time is the most miserable time for everyone. Chalk it off to raw tension."

The limelight, the scrutiny, the calls to radio talk shows -- none of it is welcomed by the person whom friends describe as an intensely private and fundamentally gracious woman. Snoops declines all interviews and prefers that others do so when asked about her. Ask Schaefer's press staff whether Snoops is residing in the Governor's Mansion (she is), and the reply is a terse "No comment."

The question on everyone's lips -- why don't they just get married? -- has been posed often in Annapolis circles but never satisfactorily answered. Theories abound, but it's clear the ties are deep regardless of whether they are licensed.

Schaefer, a lifelong bachelor, lived with his mother until she died in 1983; Snoops, a fan of Schaefer's since the 1950s, was divorced in 1962, and worked as a nurse and health care analyst until retiring after Schaefer was elected governor. They grew up in the same neighborhood, and Snoops was in his camp when Schaefer first ran for Baltimore City Council. In an arena filled with young comers and opportunists, associates say Snoops has been a constant whom Schaefer can trust, someone of his generation who shares his tastes and values.

"She is his age, he appreciates her companionship. ... It's a part of his life he keeps very private," says one former aide.

Snoops is arguably the 69-year-old governor's closest chum, and has been since he was mayor of Baltimore in the '70s. She was more of a background presence during those City Hall days, and, according to associates and gubernatorial staff members, would like to continue to shield the relationship from popular analysis. They pop up together at movies, own adjoining town houses in northern Anne Arundel County and jointly purchased a condominium in Ocean City. Snoops, 66, pays her own way to accompany Schaefer on foreign trade missions. Her family -- three children from her marriage and six grandchildren -- is Schaefer's adopted brood, and will join him at today's inauguration ceremonies.

"She cares very much about the governor, and is very supportive and protective," says Nancy Grasmick, a social friend of Schaefer and Snoops and head of the governor's Office of Children and Youth. "Like all of us, we never get 100 percent affirmation. ... It's a political arena. ... People who are in public view are constantly targets."

The attention has not been flattering. After the election, political analysts and politicians alike said the "Snoops factor" had cost Schaefer at the polls. Legislators, trying to help the governor understand why he lost in 12 of Maryland's 23 counties, pointed the finger, literally, at Schaefer's own back yard, and the $169,000 three-tiered Victorian fountain Snoops had erected on the mansion grounds.

The fountain, unveiled last spring with full ceremony, served as a symbol of Snoops's role in the controversial renovation of the mansion itself. Carried out at a cost of more than $1 million, the project included the felling of several large trees -- a touchy issue in green-leaning Annapolis -- as well as the undoing of restorations carried out by the prior administration of Harry Hughes.

Hughes's wife, Patricia, won praise from historians and architects for converting the mansion's first-floor rooms into museum-quality period pieces, each reflecting Maryland's past. Snoops, in arranging needed repairs to the upper floors, decided to redo the whole thing in more plebeian fashion -- an effort, she said, to make the building more user-friendly for the public. Her position as Schaefer's appointee to the Governor's Mansion Trust gave her the standing to carry out such a project.

Associates say her role in the project is still misunderstood and the derision is unfair.

"The criticism hurts," says Schaefer Press Secretary Paul Schurick. "The mansion had some problems and the mansion has been restored and renewed beautifully with primarily private funds. It was done so with all good intentions. To be criticized for renovations that needed to be done was unfair."

Private funding or no, the mansion became an issue. Add to that the mystery of an unmarried couple at the seat of government, and it provided a "let-'em-eat-cake" air to Schaefer's persona that seemed to contradict his regular-guy roots. It did not play well in conservative and tradition-minded areas such as the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.

The responses ranged from ridicule to rage. Items like the Baltimore Evening Sun's year-end contest for the "Top 10 List of Things Overheard During a Conversation Between William Donald Schaefer and Hilda Mae Snoops " became more frequent. (The No. 2 entry came from John and Tricia McKay: "I hope the weather is nice at the coronat ... er ... inauguration.")

The attention may have had an effect: Soon after the election, Schaefer announced he would forgo any more major mansion projects, not raise any more money, and make do with whatever the state legislature allocates for its upkeep. But Grasmick and others say the couple's affection for each other remains undiluted; Schaefer, they say, has commented that Snoops is one of the few people who were his friends before he rose to power and who he is sure will remain his friends when he leaves office.

Former press aide Linda Dove noted that at the fountain dedication -- a peak of public attention to Snoops -- Schaefer ad-libbed "a strong accolade" for her work.

Schaefer spokesman Schurick says reports of tension between Snoops and the staffs of the governor's office and mansion are "way overblown," and he blamed the press, particularly Annapolis reporters, for an excessive interest in her affairs. The Annapolis Capital and Baltimore Sun have been the most persistent chroniclers of Snoops's mansion projects, as well as mini-controversies over state police being ordered to guard the Schaefer-Snoops town homes and a feud with a former chef on the state yacht. The chef claimed he was fired for serving strawberry shortcake instead of the devil's-food cake Snoops preferred.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, Schurick says of the naughty Hilda Mae critics like to portray. "I know her to be quite the contrary -- a gracious, loyal, committed person," he says.

If there were hard feelings during the election, they must be understood in the context of the times, Schurick says. "Everyone has an opinion, and in the heat of an election campaign, emotions are at a fever pitch. ... Times were tough."

Staff writer Richard Tapscott contributed to this report.