As a senior at Western High School, Nancy S. Grasmick imagined becoming a pediatrician, but a near-fatal reaction to penicillin left her deaf and altered her life.
In the first few months of adjusting to her new world, she became obsessed with Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, who had unlocked the key to communication with Keller. "You know what, doctors save lives, but teachers build lives," she said. "Anne Sullivan built a brilliant mind. There is no limitation to what you can do [as a teacher]."
Her hearing would return in six months, and she has now spent half a century as an educator, at what she calls her "magnificent obsession."
Grasmick retires this week after two decades as state superintendent of schools, her blond puffy hair and piercing blue eyes the most recognizable face of education in Maryland. Her friends say she is so entirely defined by her work that it would seem impossible for her to separate herself from the job.
But separate she will Thursday, when she chucks the last folder out of what was once a cluttered office. Her colleagues believe that will happen close to midnight because she will not stop working long enough before then.
Grasmick, 72, has been moving at a breakneck speed that most colleagues say would be expected of a woman in her 30s. She rises at 5 a.m., arrives at work at 7:15 a.m. and leaves about 12 hours later. She claims vitamins keep her energy level up, but friends say she feeds off the work and the constant contact with people.
"She gets her energy from people," said Renee Spence, who has worked with Grasmick for more than 30 years. "She can't curl up with a book and lose herself."
Her departure has been a sprint to the end. In just the past two weeks, she has been wrapping up work on significant issues that may well drive education in the state for years to come. A committee she co-chaired just released the first evaluation system for teachers tied to student progress. The state board gave its first nod to a curriculum overhaul that will change what is taught in every public school classroom. And she dealt with a controversial review of the discipline codes.
Much of Grasmick's success and power seem to emanate from her personal warmth and the relationships she has built with everyone, from kindergartners to legislators, teachers and federal officials. She has a knack of focusing intently on people when she talks to them. She hugs everyone, even her enemies. A self-described extrovert, she has traveled widely around the state and is often stopped on the street by strangers and acquaintances who want to talk. She always obliges.
"That genuine concern is who she is. It is part of her DNA. It is not political," said her best friend, Susan Grant, whom she met when they both worked at a school.
Grasmick never changed her style to fit into the upper ranks of the state's mostly male leadership. She has remained staunchly feminine down to her toenails.
Her office has white carpeting, mint draperies, and a glass coffee table with a dried-flower arrangement. There's a child's wicker rocking chair with dolls and a diffuser releasing a vanilla scent. Covering the walls are numerous pictures, many of children, making it clear that while she has no children of her own, her life has revolved around protecting and nurturing thousands in a maternal way.
She is always impeccably dressed, and favors silk jackets and skirts in striking colors that she wears both to school board meetings and the grocery store.
Grant said that even when she tries to dress down, she can't. On a trip they took to Idaho, she told Grasmick to try to find something "casual," telling her they were in the country of bears and dirt roads. The first day was extremely hot, but Grant said Grasmick came down the stairs in a "gorgeous" black and magenta warm-up suit. Grant took her to a store to buy a cotton blouse, which Grant is sure she never wore again.
But beneath the warm exterior is a steely core. In the past two decades, Grasmick has had no trouble going head-to-head with governors and mayors, and she has pushed through reforms that deeply divided educators. Among them: making High School Assessments a graduation requirement in 2009 and agreeing to link a teacher's evaluation to the academic growth of students as part of an application for federal funds.
"She can be stubborn and hardheaded, but she is usually right. She stands her ground," Spence said.
She has survived during the terms of four governors, two of whom tried to oust her. She won both battles, many people said at the time, because she had developed such a powerful base of support from superintendents and legislators around the state, as well as from the school boards that appointed her.
At the last board meeting, as members thanked her for her service to the state, many noted a personal connection they have made with her. And board president James DeGraffenreidt said what he had found remarkable was how ably she handled the politics the job demands.
She has little direct authority over the 24 local school superintendents, so to institute change, she has had to build consensus. She also has to keep state legislators happy, as well as teachers and local officials.