Dorothy Thomas

In 2006, former students of Dorothy Thomas, then 90, surprised her with a tribute luncheon at the Eubie Blake Center for her dedication as a teacher for 20 years at Windsor Hills Elementary School. A surpised Ms. Thomas, left, is escorted by Ray Nelson, right, her student from 1971, as she arrives for the luncheon. (KENNETH K. LAM, Baltimore Sun / November 26, 2006)

Dorothy V. Thomas, a retired city public school educator who lovingly guided students at Windsor Hills Elementary School for two decades, died June 10 of respiratory failure at Summit Park Health and Rehabilitation Center in Catonsville. She was 98.

"Mrs. Thomas was such a powerful and phenomenal influence on my life and all of her students. She was old-school, and her commitment went beyond the classroom," said Sidney Clifton, a former student who is now a Hollywood producer. "It was about empowerment and self-reliance. She was our rock."

The daughter of George B. Clarke, a carpenter and woodcarver, and Grace Bond Clarke, a homemaker, Dorothy Valeria Clarke was born and raised in Berkley, Va., one of 11 sisters and brothers.

"She was a bit of a tomboy," said a nephew, George Clarke of Silver Spring. "She was quite a scrappy woman and wouldn't stand down to any guy."

She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Va., in 1934. Mrs. Thomas attended Virginia State College and later earned her bachelor’s degree in 1971 from Towson University. 

Mrs. Thomas moved to Baltimore in the early 1950s, and began her teaching career at Coppin Elementary School on Mount Street, shortly after city public schools were desegregated.

School officials later transferred Mrs. Thomas to Windsor Hills Elementary School, where during her 20-year tenure teaching sixth grade, she became a revered teacher and remained a lifelong friend to many of her students.

During her years in the classroom, Mrs. Thomas became known for several catch phrases, such as, "Are you reading for understanding?" When students were being lazy, she'd exhort them with "If you put your brains in a bird, he'd fly backward."

"Mrs. Thomas could find a student's strengths, and she made sure you knew what your gifts were," Ms. Clifton said.

Mrs. Thomas also had a well-earned reputation for running a strict classroom, which included the use of a paddle.

"Sometimes that paddle was active in our classroom, and if it was used on you, you had to sign it. Thank heavens, I never had to sign it," said Ms. Clifton, laughing.

"She always called that paddle 'The Board of Education,' " said Mr. Clarke.

In 2006, former students organized a tribute to Mrs. Thomas when it was announced that the school's library would be named in her honor.

"She wasn't like a nice, sweet teacher," Ray Nelson, who had been in the sixth-grade Class of 1971 and helped organize the party, told The Baltimore Sun at the time. "She had a way of stepping on your shoes but never to dull your shine."

Another student at the party, Gregory Deanda, recalled being frustratingly stumped by a division problem, which nearly brought him to tears.

"She made me stand by the board for 20 minutes," he told The Sun, until he solved it, with Mrs. Thomas urging him on by saying, "If you quit now, you're always going to quit."

"I did learn from that that you can't give up," Mr. Deanda told the newspaper.

"She was on the front line of historical change in the lives of Baltimore youth for generations to come. She instilled a love of learning, strong moral discipline, pride and empowerment in every student she touched," said Jane Jubilee, a great-niece who lives in Maplewood, N.J.

Mrs. Thomas received a certificate that authorized her to teach African-American studies in 1972. 

"She was an early and great advocate for black studies," said Mr. Clarke.