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Arthur E. Petersen Sr., educator

Longtime Baltimore County public school educator was one of the first African-Americans to serve as an administrator

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

3:59 PM EDT, July 12, 2012

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Arthur Everett Petersen Sr., a pioneering African-American educator whose career with Baltimore County public schools spanned four decades and the era of segregated schools, died July 6 of a heart attack at his West Baltimore home.

He was 94.

"Arthur started in the segregated school system and was one of the real leaders in moving it toward integration. He was extremely helpful in that process," said Robert Y. Dubel, who headed Baltimore County's public schools for 16 years until retiring in 1992. "He was never bitter but realistic about the past."

The son of a laborer and a homemaker, Mr. Petersen was born and raised in New York City, where he graduated from City College of New York in 1935.

He earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1941 from what is now Hampton University in Hampton, Va.

A vocational arts teacher, Mr. Petersen began his career with Baltimore County's public schools in 1941 at Banneker High School in Sparrows Point.

He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served during World War II with the Army Corps of Engineers in Europe, earning a field promotion to first lieutenant.

Mr. Petersen later was commandant of a German prisoner-of-war camp.

After being discharged from the Army in 1946, he resumed his career with the county schools, and by the late 1940s, was on the faculty of Sollers Point Junior-Senior High School in Turners Station, where he taught vocational arts.

He was teaching at Sollers Point at the time Baltimore County began desegregating schools in 1958.

"It was a close-knit community," Mr. Petersen told the Baltimore Sun in a 1999 interview. "Most of the fathers worked at Bethlehem Steel. Mothers stayed home and raised the children. Everybody knew everybody. Many of the families were related."

In 1951, he earned a master's degree in education from Columbia University, and was later transferred to Sudbrook Junior High School in Pikesville.

"We worked together at Sollers Point and went to Columbia together. In those days, blacks weren't allowed to take classes at the University of Maryland, so the state sent us and paid all of our expenses for us to go to Columbia," said Mack D. Simpson Jr., who retired in 1983 from Carter G. Woodson Elementary School, where he had been principal.

Mr. Petersen was later promoted to an administrative assistant and then assistant vice principal at Woodlawn Junior High School, where he remained until the early 1970s. He was named principal of Johnnycake Junior High School, a position he retained until retiring in 1979.

"Arthur had been an outstanding principal, and he always had very loyal faculties who looked up to him as a leader, and color had nothing to do with that," said Dr. Dubel.

"Whenever there were matters of race relations, I'd always call him for counsel. He was a true leader," he said.

"Arthur was a highly intelligent person who took his work very seriously. He was a perfectionist, and everything had to be done just right," recalled Mr. Simpson. "He was a top-notch teacher and administrator."

Mr. Petersen had been president for two years of the Schoolmen's Association, two years after it was integrated, and had also been a member of the Secondary Schools Administrator's Association.

In his retirement, Mr. Petersen tutored students in English for Apostolado Hispano for the Roman Catholic Church. He was a member of the board of the Druid Hill Family YMCA and had been a member of the state health arbitration panel.

A baritone, Mr. Petersen sang in numerous choirs and choral groups since childhood, some of which included the Hampton Choir, The Baltimore Singers and the Baltimore Chapel Choir.

He enjoyed playing piano and listening to classical music and jazz.

Mr. Petersen enjoyed home improvement projects and working in his home workshop. He was a carpenter, electrician and painter, and liked refinishing furniture, laying floors and electrical work.

For more than 30 years, he took an annual family vacation to St. Croix. When he was 65, Mr. Petersen began scuba diving and became interested in underwater photography.

In the 1960s, he was a founder of Phos-Graphein Camera Club and had a home darkroom where he developed both black-and-white and color film.

Since 1941, he had been a communicant of St. James Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square in West Baltimore.

He had been chairman of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. He held various roles with the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, including serving as secretary of its Bragg Scholarship Fund.

Mr. Petersen had been a member of the board of trustees of St. James Apartments, which is owned by his church.

On his resume, Mr. Petersen explained his life's goal: "Promoting and encouraging youth to develop self-discipline, respect for others, and to maximize educational opportunities in service to their families, communities and God."

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at his church, 1020 W. Lafayette Ave.

Surviving are his wife of 64 years, the former Marguerite Page, a retired city public school educator; a son, Arthur Everett Petersen Jr. of Baltimore; a grandson; and several nieces and a nephew.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com