When Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer's mother died in 1984, hundreds of people attended the funeral service, but all of his friends and family fit into a single limousine.

Several of those present at the services for Tululu Schaefer, who shared a west Baltimore row house with the mayor until shortly before she died, were struck that a man who had lived a public life for more than 30 years was surrounded at a time of intense personal grief by so few people who could call him a close friend.

The solitary scene spoke volumes about Schaefer's political evolution during his years as Baltimore's mayor and now as one of the state's most dominant political figures. At 64, he is waging a campaign for Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial nomination with a political lineage far more complex than that of his progressive, reform-minded opponent, Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.

Unlike Sachs, who has molded himself around liberal heroes in the Democratic Party, Schaefer rarely deals in symbols or labels. He has no ideological mentors and rarely wears the party stripe, even courting Presidents Nixon and Reagan on occasions when he felt that a Republican administration could help his city. In contrast to Sachs, the mayor keeps none of the customary grip-and-grin photographs of himself posing with other politicians on his office walls. Instead, paintings and prints of city scenes hang there.

Schaefer came to power with a west Baltimore political organization headed by millionaire furniture dealer Irvin Kovens and Philip H. Goodman, a former state legislator who later became mayor. His earliest successes resulted in part from Kovens' abilities as a fund-raiser. This early allegiance, Sachs has said, ties Schaefer inextricably to Baltimore's oldest traditions of big-city, wheeler-dealer politics.

Today the organization supporting Schaefer has expanded to include many kinds of people: neighborhood activists and business men and women drawn into the mayor's circle in part because they have benefited from programs he established for them.

Schaefer is often likened to New York Mayor Edward Koch and to his old friend, former governor Marvin Mandel, whose wizardry at controlling state government is legendary in Maryland political circles. Schaefer says he admires former Chicago mayor Richard Daley and former Baltimore city council president Leon Abramson, who Schaefer says ran that body with an "iron hand."

But while Schaefer is the essence of a big-city mayor -- building support over time by piecing together different constituencies -- he is not a traditional big-city boss. He has not relied on the old-fashioned Democratic clubs, ethnic affiliations or party leaders to maintain power. Nor has he played the role of kingmaker -- other than for himself.

"You try to fit him into a conventional mold, but he doesn't fit," said Walter Sondheim Jr., a longtime friend who is chairman of the quasi-public Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc.

When asked to describe his political roots, Schaefer said, "My political family was Mr. Kovens and Mr. Goodman," a reference to his first successful race for public office on a traditional Baltimore Democratic slate organized by Kovens and Goodman.

But since that first race for City Council in 1954, Schaefer has differed on occasion with the Kovens organization -- as in 1966, when he backed a reform Democrat for governor. Even so, Kovens has continued over the years to raise money for Schaefer.

Schaefer's political friends and acquaintances say he is an independent pragmatist. To him, politics is a way of getting things accomplished, they say. Baltimore's much-touted revitalization of the Inner Harbor and some of its neighborhoods came about, his supporters say, because of that single-mindedness, coupled over the years with a tireless work ethic that left no room for a wife or family.

Schaefer first became involved in politics through his small west Baltimore church and later through his participation in a network of neighborhood associations.

"None of us had connections," said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Mary Arabian, who remembers campaigning on street corners during Schaefer's first two unsuccessful tries for the House of Delegates. "We were kids out there scrounging around. When he started, it was with no support politically except friends and pockets of people from within those neighborhood organizations."

He had his own William Donald Schaefer Democratic Club for a while, but many of those supporters moved to the suburbs while Schaefer remained in a city and a neighborhood that were slowly becoming mostly black.

Schaefer's involvement in the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, an umbrella organization for neighborhood lobbying efforts, increased his visibility. When Goodman and Kovens recruited him for the City Council race in 1954, Schaefer commanded grass-roots strength based in the solidly middle-class southwest Baltimore neighborhoods he had cultivated through zoning battles and the fight to build a new west side high school.

For their part, Kovens and Goodman gave Schaefer the winning edge by delivering a consistent voting bloc of mostly Jewish northwest Baltimore precincts. Schaefer, a German Episcopal lawyer from Edgewood Street, was the only Gentile candidate on the Goodman slate that year, which challenged the then-dominant political organization headed by another west Baltimore power broker, Jack Pollack.

"In those days no one ran on their own and won," said former Democratic state senator Harry J. McGuirk, who for years has run his own influential southeast Baltimore political organization. "People had to put you on their tickets or you had no shot."

Schaefer won a council seat from the 5th District and has not lost an election since.

Although Kovens and Goodman helped him get elected, Schaefer said in a recent interview, "They never asked me to do anything. My understanding with organizations was don't ask me to do anything wrong. Don't ask me to do anything I can't do. That was fine with them."

He said he demonstrated that independence in 1966 when Goodman and Kovens joined retiring governor J. Millard Tawes in backing Thomas B. Finan for governor. Schaefer worked instead for gubernatorial candidate Carlton Sickles, who had also attracted the support of Sachs. Clinton Bamberger, then an attorney general candidate, remembers Schaefer as the leading city politician to support Sickles that year. "That was an act of some note," Bamberger said. "I don't know if it was courage or foolhardiness or what."

Schaefer also has remained friends over the years with some of the city's leading power brokers, including Mandel, a Kovens protege who served time in prison during 1980 and 1981 on a racketeering and mail fraud conviction. When Mandel was paroled, Schaefer offered him a job in the city -- an act, he said, that reflected his loyalty to an old friend.

The loyalty has been returned. Both Kovens and Mandel attended Schaefer's million-dollar fund raiser last September. Kovens visited Tululu Schaefer in the hospital during her last illness and attended her funeral.

Goodman died in 1976; Kovens has maintained a low profile since his prison release on a corruption conviction, and Mandel works as a private development consultant.

"Our paths sort of paralleled," Mandel recalled. "When he became president of the City Council, I became speaker of the House. I became governor and he became mayor. His career was with the city and mine was with the state."

Like Mandel, who as governor boasted of his ability to "work it out," Schaefer likes to be known as someone who concentrates on "getting things done." Baltimore has benefited over the years from his association with Mandel and Kovens, Schaefer says, citing state support during the 1970s of the Baltimore subway and its harborfront World Trade Center.

Schaefer did not learn politics at the knee of his father, who was a title lawyer. After graduating from the city's college preparatory high school, Schaefer went straight to the University of Baltimore law school, taking classes at night and working during the day.

After he graduated, Schaefer joined the Army, where he had his first administrative experience as the executive officer of a military hospital in England.

Schaefer's war years taught him how to seize and maintain control. "I learned then that if you want to get things done you can do it two ways," he said of his work at the hospital. "Ordering people around or asking them to work."

Schaefer returned home as a lawyer in 1945 but never liked practicing law, and even then began to plan for a different future.

"When he was with us he wanted to take walks down to the harbor, look there and say, 'You know, this could be another San Francisco,' " said Arabian, his former law partner.

Even as a member of the City Council, Schaefer was most comfortable as its president, his associates remember, and he acted more like a deputy mayor than head of a separate branch of government.

Schaefer learned much from Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., known familiarly as Old Tommie, who was mayor from 1947 until 1959. "When Tommie said do something, you'd do it," he recalled.

But as Schaefer amassed the type of power normally reserved for political bosses, he did so without assembling the political machine normally associated with them.

"I think the mayor has developed over the years an incredibly huge network of people who are supporters of his goals," said Sally Michel, an inveterate city volunteer who over the years has hosted carefully orchestrated dinners in her home to introduce Schaefer to people representing different segments of the community. Her husband, who is in business, is Schaefer's campaign treasurer. "You now have a lot of apolitical people involved in the city."

Schaefer's campaign workers and City Hall cabinet are not politicians, and his biggest supporters during his last election included neighborhood workers and business people, rather than elected officials who owed their careers to Schaefer political slate-making.

"Don has never been political organization-oriented," said McGuirk. "If he had done that he would have a power base. Look at the City Council. He doesn't have a political structure where he can say, 'I have 15 votes.' "

But Schaefer, in part by sheer force of personality, has used the strong mayor-weak council form of government dictated by the city charter to his advantage. "The Soviet proletariat probably has more power than the Baltimore City Council," observes Baltimore County state Sen. John Coolahan, a frequent Schaefer critic.

Also, Schaefer keeps the five-member Board of Estimates, which oversees the city's finances, under his strict control, in part because he appoints three of its members. In addition, he appoints the school superintendent and members of the school board.

"I watched an administration where the mayor, the comptroller and the president of the City Council didn't talk," Schaefer said of his days as a council member while J. Harold Grady was mayor. "And I vowed that wouldn't happen to me."

Unlike Sachs, who talks for hours about his heroes in the Democratic Party, Schaefer often eschews anything to do with party. In 1984, he bypassed the Democratic National Convention in favor of a trip to the San Diego Zoo. This year, he skipped a local party dinner but showed up the same day at a fund raiser for Rep. Helen D. Bentley, a first-term Republican from Baltimore County.

"The only way I can describe him is: Don is the most nonpolitical politician I've ever met in my life," said Mandel.