Helena Elizabeth Sawyer Roberts Wright

Helena Elizabeth Sawyer Roberts Wright ( )

Helena E. Sawyer Roberts Wright, a retired city elementary school teacher and principal who was an active member of Heritage United Church of Christ, died Aug. 18 at her Lochearn home of complications from heart disease. She was 93.

"She was a pillar of Baltimore education and society," said Latrell A. Clark, an educator who had attended Hilton Elementary School from 1977 to 1983 when Mrs. Wright was its principal. "She made learning fun and made you want to come to school."

The daughter of John Sawyer and Clara Doyle Sawyer, who owned and operated a boarding house, the former Helena Elizabeth Sawyer was born in Norfolk, Va., and moved in 1929 to Lexington Street in West Baltimore.

After graduating in 1939 from Frederick Douglass High School, she enrolled at what was then Coppin State Teachers College, where she earned a degree in education in 1942.

Because African-Americans were not allowed to attend graduate school in Maryland during the era of segregation, Mrs. Wright traveled to New York City on weekends and during summer to study at New York University, where she earned her master's degree in 1945.

Mrs. Wright began her teaching career in 1942 in Baltimore public schools. She later became an education specialist, vice principal and principal of Hilton Elementary School, a position she held for a decade until retiring in 1983.

"She was the type of person who interacted with all of us. Very often when you're in administration you tend to interact with other administrators and teachers," said Ms. Clark, who teaches 11th-grade history at Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County.

"She was personable and greeted us each day. She knew all of our names and made Hilton into a family," said Ms. Clark. "She encouraged us to build our educational foundation and we went on to Poly, City and Western."

She said that Mrs. Wright influenced her to become a teacher.

"She imparted her morals and values regarding education. She made me want to be a teacher," said Ms. Clark.

"I first met her when she was a specialist helping beginning teachers and she was very capable at that. She helped new teachers get over the hump," said James W. Walker, a retired Baltimore public school principal. "And many teachers are successful today for the help they received from Mrs. Wright. She went out of her way to help them."

He said Mrs. Wright put in long hours working with new teachers.

"She always spent many long evenings after meetings were over to help someone who needed something special and that always impressed me," said Mr. Walker. "She was both outgoing and outspoken, and she made you feel comfortable and that you had made a contribution. She was exceptionally good at that."

She was married in 1949 to Timothy Roosevelt Wright, a Bethlehem Steel Corp. steelworker. For years, the couple lived in a home at 2413 W. Lexington St. before moving to Lochearn in the early 1960s.

"Many long friendships were established on Lexington Street," said a granddaughter, Stacie Wright of Lochearn. "Helena was fondly thought of as a second mother to many of the neighborhood kids."

As a young adult, Mrs. Wright joined Faith Baptist Church in East Baltimore, and then in the early 1950s, she joined the Baltimore Ethical Society, where she became a Sunday school teacher.

"She was a staunch advocate of equality and human rights, and above all, the rights of all children to a quality education," said Ms. Wright.

In recent years, she joined Heritage United Church of Christ, where she was active in the Bible study group.

Mrs. Wright was an inveterate world traveler and took her first trip to Europe in 1962 with the Baltimore Teachers Union onboard a "propeller airplane," her granddaughter said.

She visited all of the continents with the exception of Antarctica. Adventuresome, she did everything from "white water rafting to going on safaris," said Ms. Wright.

"She rode roller coasters with her grandchildren at theme parks until she was in her 70s," she said.

Mrs. Wright was an accomplished line dancer and was often the "first one out on the dance floor," her granddaughter said.

She also liked working in the garden of her Lochearn home.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Ethical Society, 306 W. Franklin St.

In addition to her husband of 65 years and her granddaughter, Mrs. Wright is survived by a son, Craig Edward Wright of Lochearn; a daughter, Vonita LaVerne Wright Simms Townes of Hagerstown; a sister, Mary Wood Jones of Baltimore; 12 other grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren. Another son, Eric "Ricky" Gary Roberts Wright, died in 2000. An earlier marriage to Theodore Roberts ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com