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Emily C. Wolfson, an outspoken educational advocate for half-a-century, dies at 89

Emily C. Wolfson, a gadfly and educational watchdog who advocated for Baltimore County public schools for more than 50 years and was also a Liberty Road-area activist, died Aug. 2 at her Randallstown home. She was 89.

Mrs. Wolfson took her own life, said her daughter-in-law, Mary Catherine Wolfson of Granite.

"Emily was one of those matriarchs we have in Baltimore County who always had an opinion and was mostly right," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

"She always cared where things could go. She wasn't a naysayer and always saw the glass half-full and wondered why we couldn't fill it to the top," he said.

"Emily was a tremendous advocate for better schools. She had no other interest except having a better school system," said Robert Y. Dubel, who headed Baltimore County public schools for 16 years until retiring in 1992.

"She was feisty but in a very reasonable way. She always made a very reasoned argument," said Dr. Dubel. "I was very, very fond of Emily. She was a dear lady."

The daughter of a furniture manufacturers' representative and a homemaker, Emily Corney was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she graduated in 1939 from Erasmus Hall High School.

She attended Brooklyn College for several years and moved with her family in 1941 to a home on Carlisle Avenue in Ashburton, after her father established Alan Upholstery on South Hanover Street.

In 1947, she married Myron Leonard Wolfson, a decorated World War II veteran and a lawyer, and for several years, she worked as a secretary for a Baltimore insurance company.

A decade later, the couple settled into their Randallstown home, and by the early 1960s, their two children began attending the recently opened Church Lane Elementary School.

Mrs. Wolfson's springboard into educational activism began with the PTA in those years, and her advocacy for Baltimore County school children remained the focus of her life to within 10 days of her death.

"She called me up on my cell phone less than a month ago. I was in Washington and she was excited and all in a dither about something," said Mike Bowler, a retired Baltimore Sun education reporter who now serves on the Baltimore County school board.

"She said she had found out that middle school parents were having to buy gym uniforms for their kids. When I asked about this, she said she had visited all the schools and that was the case," said Mr. Bowler. "Emily then said, 'You have to do something about this.'"

No issue was too complicated or controversial to escape Mrs. Wolfson's advocacy. She worked for the elimination of corporal punishment or paddling in county schools, which ended the practice in 1970.

She pushed for a pre-kindergarten program, which came to fruition in the 1980s and resulted in the establishment of the county's Office of Early Childhood Education, and all-day kindergarten. She also gave a voice to disadvantaged students.

"It was amazing that after all these years that her kids were out of school, she continued her work. Her advocacy was universal and it was for all children in the county. She cared about African-American and disadvantaged children. She believed in inclusiveness," said Mr. Bowler.

"Emily was very civil rights-oriented and at a time when county schools needed to be," he said. "She was an activist in the right kind of way and remained in there and worked hard for the rest of her life."

In a 1995 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mrs. Wolfson was sanguine about how the system had worked.

"We had a system that served our dominant population well," she said. "I don't know how well our system served the disadvantaged in the past."

"When you live in Sparks, it's very difficult to understand Woodmoor Elementary School and its students and their needs," said Mrs. Wolfson, who pointed out the geographic disparity between the largely rural Sparks and the urbanized Woodmoor inside the Beltway.

Shelly Weinstein, a former Pikesville activist who now lives in Bethesda, worked alongside Mrs. Wolfson from the early days when they founded Citizens for Better Education.

"Emily never let up. She was always at the forefront and stayed with it. She kept the pressure up. At a reunion luncheon several years ago, I told her that she had been a one-woman force in bringing modernity to the school system," recalled Mrs. Weinstein.

Mrs. Weinstein described her as a "true citizen activist."

"I'm sure at times she drove the school board members and the superintendent bonkers," said Mr. Bowler.

In a 1977 interview with The Baltimore Sun, she described her feelings of the then-board.

"I think they're well-meaning people. I think they all give of their time unselfishly and interestedly enough. No one has been derelict in his duty with regard to attending meetings. They're very diligent. But I think they reflect the conservatism of Baltimore County," she said. "What they do not reflect is the more liberal segment of the society."

Dr. Dubel recalled that Mrs. Wolfson was "conscientious when it came to studying the school board budget and curriculum."

"I always thought she would have made an excellent board member," he said.

As an active member of the Liberty Road Community Council and the Liberty Communities Development Corp., Mrs. Wolfson poured her energy into long-term community planning and a master plan for the community.

In 2006, she saw two years of advocacy come true when then-County Executive James T. Smith Jr. announced that the Randallstown Community Center would become a reality.

Earlier this year, after it was announced that Walmart would open in 2012 on Liberty Road, Mrs. Wolfson expressed worry that it was important to have the big box merchant in the community, but local businesses and merchants shouldn't be overwhelmed by it.

"She was very thoughtful and deeply cared about her community because she had lived there for more than 50 years and could offer historical perspective and where we could go," said Mr. Kamenetz.

Mrs. Wolfson enjoyed cooking and entertaining.

"Her hobby was lobbying. Everyone knows that hands down," her daughter-in-law said. "She was a professional citizen."

Services were Aug. 4.

Also surviving are a son, Carl Wolfson of Granite; a daughter, Jean Wolfson of Arizona; a brother, Alan Corney of Morristown, N.J.; and three grandchildren. Her husband died in 2003.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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