Dunbar Brooks, a longtime Turners Station civic activist who was the first African-American to serve as president of the Baltimore County school board and later became president of the Maryland State Board of Education, died Sunday at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center of an infection. Mr. Brooks was 63.
"Dunbar was a longtime board member who represented Turners Station well. He also was a constant advocate for improving scores of minority children," said Dr. Robert Y. Dubel, a longtime friend who headed Baltimore County public schools for 16 years.
"He and I shared that goal, and we worked hard on this issue. We both believed that children despite their ethnic or economic condition could succeed," said Dr. Dubel. "We developed many programs to close the gap between affluent children and those with special needs, and he carried that on to the state board of education."
"He wanted all of the students to have opportunities, excellent teachers, and did not want to lower standards," said Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, the former Maryland school superintendent, who earlier had been an assistant and associate superintendent for Baltimore County public schools.
"He was so articulate and his rhetoric was so persuasive that issues were passed because of what he had said," said Dr. Grasmick. "Dunbar never spoke out of fear of political consequences or retaliation. He was determined when he spoke about the value of inclusiveness for all students and their future."
The son of Mable Brooks, a single parent, Dunbar Brooks was born in Baltimore and raised in the Gilmor Homes, a housing project in the city's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
His mother proved to be a powerful influence on her young son, whom she took to National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and political meetings. There he became acquainted with the city's African-American political and business elite.
"Growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in, I've always been concerned about equality issues, housing issues, economic issues for people who looked like me," Mr. Brooks told The Baltimore Sun in a 1997 article.
"If you grew up in a housing project and look at the townhouses and nice lawns — I felt everyone had to have this. To me, in a country as healthy and prosperous as the United States, everyone should have that dream," he said.
A 1968 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, Mr. Brooks enlisted in the Army in 1970. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a drug amnesty counselor and personnel specialist before being discharged in 1973.
After returning to Baltimore, he enrolled at Morgan State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in urban planning in 1976. Two years later, he earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of Baltimore.
Mr. Brooks worked as an urban planner for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council for 34 years, where the focus of his work was on the demographics of the region.
Mr. Brooks also taught at night at Morgan State and the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus.
After marrying the former Edythe Mason in 1977, the couple settled in Turners Station, where he became active with the Turners Station Development Corp. and the Dundalk/Sparrows Point chapter of the NAACP, where he served for many years as its president.
Education and educational issues came to define Mr. Brooks' life, and he became an influential and vocal figure in shaping education policy on both the county and state level.
In 1989, then-Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen nominated him to the county school board, and he served two five-year terms as its president.
"He was a board member who had done his homework. He was extremely well-prepared and always asked penetrating questions that were greatly appreciated," said Dr. Dubel. "He was just a level-headed person who did not work on emotion, it was always logic."
Mr. Brooks was on the state school board from 2002 to 2009 and was its president in 2007 and 2008.
"Having Dunbar on the state board as an adviser was incredible. He had an uncompromising dedication to education and all students," said Dr. Grasmick. "He was a mentor to me."
Mr. Brooks was a powerful voice for the plight of African-American boys, who he believed should be singled out for special academic interventions.
A 2006 report by a state task force that Mr. Brooks co-chaired recommended solutions such as single-sex classrooms and street-level fixes such as pairing ex-convicts with young men in the neighborhood to address a persistent problem in achievement for black males.
"There is a crushing sense of urgency that permeates this report," Mr. Brooks said at the time. "If we don't make this change, we have failed as a society and a nation."
Mr. Brooks also believed in maintaining high standards for students, even when he knew that might mean fewer African-Americans would graduate. In 2008, when the state school board was deliberating about whether to pass high school tests that would be a graduation requirement, he argued vehemently for the tests.
Mr. Brooks retired late last year from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
An Orioles and Ravens fan, he liked playing tennis and basketball and was a member of the Green Spring Racquet Club.
He was a member of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Turners Station.
A wake will begin at 10 a.m. with funeral services at 11 a.m. Monday at Union Baptist Church, 105 Main St., Dundalk. A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 in the theater at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus.
In addition to his wife of 37 years, a retired registered nurse, Mr. Brooks is survived by a daughter, Cheryl Renee Brooks of Dundalk; a stepson, Gary Arthur Young of Vienna, Va.; a stepdaughter, Tracey Young Williams of Dundalk; and three grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.