The suicide note he left stated in no uncertain terms why he had done it, but it seemed unbelievable just the same: Gustav J. Akerland, by all accounts the greatest alderman and acting mayor Annapolis had ever seen, had shot himself in the head and blamed it on the city budget.
As Anne Arundel County Councilman Bill Brill said afterward, "I'll shoot myself over my career, my friends, my family, my lovers -- but hell, I'm not going to shoot myself over the budget."
A lot of people felt there had to be something else that did him in, something besides the $15 million budget that Akerland took on when he became acting mayor, some dark secret concealed behind his brisk, purposeful manner. But to his friends and family, the suicide note told the truth. As his sister Marjorie said at the memorial service last Sunday: "You had to know Gus."
He was 60 years old, a trained physicist and retired Air Force colonel so meticulous he carried his own metal ashtray, with a lid on it, for the Winstons he smoked. His perfectionism was legendary. The Rev. William Barnett noted it at the memorial service when he recalled the day Akerland, a splendid woodworker, delivered the three wooden decorative cubes he had built for the church: "He said, 'I'm sorry, Bill, but one of them is one-64th of an inch off.'"
That kind of perfectionism, his friends and family say, made it impossible for him to accept the fact that balancing the Annapolis budget -- a budget, in the words of alderman Ed Finnegan, that "God Himself couldn't put together" -- meant raising taxes or cutting services. Akerland told several people, including the executive editor of the Annapolis Evening Capital and the city aldermen, that he was going to kill himself over the budget. But no one believed him; it sounded too ludicrous, especially coming from the man in Annapolis who had always gotten the job done.
At a council meeting 20 days before his suicide, Akerland said he had "some good news and some bad news." The bad news was that the 911 emergency phone number was going to cost more money to install than had been expected. "We said, 'Okay, Gus, what's the good news?'" Akerland's friend and fellow alderman, John Hammond, recalled. "He said, 'The good news is I'm going to kill myself in 11 days.' No one thought he was serious. I just thought, 'It'll be over in June and he'll be the same old Gus again.'"
Gus Akerland was punctual, practical and unpretentious: His suits were outdated with one-inch cuffs and narrow lapels. He always carried a briefcase and a pocket-sized calculator. He wore a wrist watch with a metal calendar clipped to each side, and he boasted that it gained or lost less than 10 seconds a year. Hammond remembers the time Gus got into a minor tiff over the time with the former mayor.
"Gus said it was three minutes to 8. The mayor said it was five of 8. Finally, Gus insisted on calling the number for time. Gus was right. It was three minutes to 8."
Akerland was always prepared. When alderman Finnegan, a reformed smoker, introduced a nonsmoking ordinance, Akerland, the chainsmoker, was ready with a prepared speech on the rights of individuals. Akerland was brilliant. Finnegan didn't have a chance. He stood up, shrugged and, as was his style, delivered an eloquent quotation, this one from Macbeth: "Out, out brief candle! Life's but a walking-shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. . ." Finnegan's ordinance lost, 7-2.
Akerland and his wife Ida went out to dinner seven nights a week, mostly to places like Denny's and the Horn & Horn cafeteria. The meals were recorded in Akerland's black book, just as everything was recorded. Akerland kept their financial records back for all the 36 years of their marriage, and everything was entered: He could tell you to the penny how much he spent for groceries in 1952.
"If he spent a nickel, he put it down," his sister Marjorie said. "One time the IRS called Gus in, and he went in with all his books and records, and every penny was down, and the IRS man just said, 'That's fine' and let him go."
He was raised in Dayton, Ohio, the son of a stern Swede who taught his children to hang up their clothes after they took them off by putting the clothes in the yard if they didn't. Akerland's father was an interior designer who hung the wallpaper and applied the paint and plaster as well as sketching the room plans. His mother was a bookkeeper from Germany.
He had two younger sisters; all three children were taught carpentry, cooking, cleaning and sewing.
He graduated from high school at age 16, with nearly straight A's, and from the University of Texas with honors in physics. He joined the Air Force as a navigator and eventually was assigned to advanced research projects.
Akerland, his wife and two sons moved to Annapolis in 1955, and he commuted to assignments at the Pentagon and Andrews Air Force Base and in Baltimore.
While he and his family were stationed in Thailand 12 years ago, his oldest son, who was 16 at the time, jumped from a seven-story building to his death. Akerland rarely discussed it; he could talk for hours about the zoning code, but he rarely discussed anything personal. He was, in the words of his widow, "an absolute workaholic." His last job with the Air Force was as director of the Electromagnetic Compatibility Analysis Center in Annapolis. He retired from the Air Force in 1975. But he never really retired.
Four years ago, Akerland, a Republican, ran for the job of alderman and won by 23 votes. He was the only retiree among Annapolis' eight aldermen, who include a banker, a newspaper sports editor, a barber, a food broker, an insurance administrator, a bureaucrat and the manager of a movie theatre. The job of alderman, which pays $5,000 a year, has always been viewed as a part-time responsibility.But for Gus it was a full-time job.
"This man . . . worked full time for the city of Annapolis," Ida Akerland said."He loved it."
He was tireless and endlessly curious. When his constituents complained their water bills were too high, he became an expert on the internal workings of a water meter.
Convinced the state was accumulating more trash at the Capitol than it paid the city to collect, he went to the landfill and weighed the state's trash. That argument was still unresolved at the time of his death.
He spent two months analyzing the city's sewage figures and concluded that the county had overcharged Annapolis by $200,000 for the sewage plant they shared. The county, faced with Akerland's figures, reacted much the same way as the IRS man who had once looked at his books.
"They had no arguments left," Annapolis Treasurer Bill Tyler said.
Joe Axelrod, former director of Annapolis' Department of Public Works, was awed by Akerland's performance. "It was like having a whole department on your payroll. He visited the plant more than I did."
Akerland, naturally, served on the council's finance committee. So did John Hammond and Ed Finnegan. They got along famously, Akerland, the perfectionist retired colonel; Hammond, the congenial bank officer who could spend two hours on a Saturday chatting with the voters at Magruder's supermarket; Finnegan, the Shakespeare-quoting New Englander who commutes to his job in Washington as internal relations officer for the Defense Mapping Agency.
"Finnegan was the philosopher, Gus was the grunt man, and I was the idea man," Hammond said.
Akerland was a marked contrast to John Apostol, Annapolis' easygoing, charismatic mayor, known for the long balls he hit as a star on the city's softball team and for his passion for the Baltimore Orioles.
In February, Apostol resigned as mayor and took a banking job in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. No one wanted to be acting mayor, a thankless three-month job that would mean preparing the budget for submission to the finance committee by April 30. Hammond recalled: "Gus, being the trooper, the old soldier that he was, said, 'Well, I'll do it. It has to be done.'"
He was sworn in March 9, the day before the city's 12 department heads were to submit their budget requests. Almost overnight, Akerland became obsessed. "Gus was always a pretty intense fellow, but he became even more intense," Hammond said. "He worked seven days a week, 20 hours a day. If he wasn't working at the office, he was working at home."
Hammond told him to relax; the April 30 deadline could be stretched. But Akerland was a man who made deadlines. His friends became worried. "We didn't want Gus to work that hard, but how do you turn a guy like that off?" Ed Finnegan said.
"This was his total life," his widow said. "He thought he could solve all the budget problems. He was a military man. Part of this was his military training, I suppose."
In the 34 days he was acting mayor, his administrative assistant remembers him going out to lunch once, and that was for a quick sandwich at Chick and Ruth's Deli on Main Street. There didn't seem to be any way out; taxes would have to be raised or services would have to be cut. Above all else, Akerland did not want to raise the city tax rate, which had gone up a record 46 cents in the last year.
His sister Marjorie telephoned from her home in Cincinnati. "He sounded so tired. I said 'What is it, Gus?'"
"It's the budget," Gus told Marjorie. "I feel like I'm drowning."
On the last Saturday night of his life, Akerland planned an 8:30 budget session at John Hammond's house. But instead he went to the mayor's office with the fireplace and the wallpaper and brick-walled hallway. He carried with him a .22-caliber Ruger rifle he'd bought for $109 at Montgomery Ward that afternoon. Shortly after 9:30, Annapolis police estimate, he wrapped his head in his suit jacket and fired one shot, grazing his temple. He stumbled across the room, hit the burglar alarm and then fired three more shots. Two missed. One lodged in his brain. He died four days later, on April 15. The alarm, which summoned the police, was typically Gus, his friends said.
"He didn't want anyone just walking in on him," alderman John Chambers said.
He left a sealed letter for his wife and a suicide note in the form of a memo. The memo, according to Annapolis police, stated that he could not get the budget done on time and "indicated a total concept of frustration and depression" over the city's financial status. Akerland also wrote: "I recommend that the state of Maryland must recognize municipalities as entities, and not merely thorns in the side of counties."
Half the town turned out for the memorial service, held Sunday at the Unitarian Church, on a grassy hill planted with dogwood trees. Akerland's 22-year-old son came from New York City. The Rev. William Barnett spoke of Akerland's childhood. "Failure was not tolerated. There was work to be done, and one did it, and it was assumed it would be done perfectly."
After the service, the mourners consoled Akerland's widow, a gracious woman in a black dress and a strand of pearls. Her sisters say that Ida Akerland, who recently returned to college and graduated magna cum laude, is, in many way, "just like Gus."
"I've never fainted in my life, and I'm not going to faint now," she said. "One does what one has to do. One keeps on going."
She wondered, though, if it hadn't been too much of a burden, being Gustav J. Akerland, public servant. "Maybe it was a vice, always being able to do everything, always getting the job done."