John W. Bereska, a retired Baltimore County public school educator who was principal of Hereford High School for more than a decade, died Friday of prostate cancer at his Cockeysville home.
He was 66.
“John was a good friend. We went on a State Department tour of Japan, and in three weeks, I really got to know him quite well. He was a good ambassador for the United States and American education,” said Robert Y. Dubel, who headed Baltimore County public schools for 16 years before retiring in 1992.
“John was a really sensitive and kind person, and I was delighted when he became a principal at Hereford, where he did a great job,” Dr. Dubel said. “He was a great supporter of boys’ and girls’ sports. He was always present for games, and the students really appreciated that about him.”
“I was his assistant principal at Hereford for four or five years, and the thing I’d say about John and what I’ll remember is his love of kids,” said Joseph Jira, Hereford’s current principal. “I think his biggest reward was his professional relationships with kids and teachers.”
“His death is a tremendous loss for the Hereford community,” said Mike Kalish, the school’s athletic director. “He was a strong and reflective leader who had a strong commitment of purpose to the faculty, staff and students.”
John William Bereska was the son of two German immigrants: George Bereska, an Esskay accountant, and Hedwig Bereska, a homemaker.
He was born in Baltimore and raised in the city’s Belair-Edison neighborhood. He graduated in 1968 from City College.
Mr. Bereska earned a bachelor’s degree in 1972 in history and secondary education from Towson University and a master’s degree in 1975 in administrative education, as well as an advanced professional degree, from the Johns Hopkins University.
He began his 38-year career in education in 1972, teaching American and world history at Kenwood High School, where he also coached wrestling, golf and football.
Because of his accomplishments as a wrestling coach, Mr. Bereska was named to the Maryland Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Following teaching stints at Chesapeake, Overlea and Catonsville high schools, he was appointed assistant principal in 1993 at Woodlawn High School. Two years later, he was appointed principal of Lansdowne High School, which was struggling at the time.
“He brought a sense of calmness,” said Marcia Lathroum, who was chair of the school’s counseling department at the time of his arrival and served as assistant principal from 1997 until she retired in 2001.
“They say when you become an administrator, you’re lucky if you get 60 percent on your side; John had 80 or 90 percent. He was extremely well liked,” she said. “He always listened, and while I didn’t always agree with him, he’d at least listen to your opinion, and sometimes he would change his.”
During his tenure at Lansdowne, Mr. Bereska expanded the business program and helped foster school spirit, former colleagues said.
“He was an excellent principal. He interacted with the faculty and students, both in and out of the classroom,” said Patty Simon, who taught English at Lansdowne for 32 years before retiring in 2007. “He participated in extracurricular activities. For example, he took part in the faculty skit in the variety show, and he was on the teachers’ team in the tug-of-war against the senior class.”
Mr. Bereska ended his career as principal for 12 years at Hereford, retiring in 2012.
During his tenure, Hereford gained national recognition as one of the top high schools in the nation. He also expanded the art, music and athletic programs, and was a regular at the school’s sporting events.
“John was a tremendous supporter of our athletic department, and he enjoyed spending time with our athletes,” Mr. Kalish said. “He’d sit behind the team or on the team bench. He was always a positive influence on our athletes.”
“I think the biggest thing John taught me that being principal was more than just making decisions, it’s how you carry yourself around the building,” Mr. Jira said.
“It’s being a humanitarian and having compassion for the kids. If a teacher needed a day off for a family reason — family was always first with him — he’d tell them, ‘Take it off,’ ” Mr. Jira said.
“John was a family man — a devoted husband and father — who set a good example of how to balance family and school,” Ms. Simon said.
“The biggest thing about John was his heart. He was a family person first, and an educator second,” Ms. Lathroum said.
Mr. Bereska believed in the educational value of travel and helped develop international exchange programs for Baltimore County public schools. He traveled with students and teachers to Japan, Russia and China, and spent three months in Kenya and Tanzania as a Fulbright scholar, which he considered a highlight of his career, family members said.
“John was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, and I think that changed his outlook on life,” Mr. Jira said. “There were things he wanted to do.”
Mr. Bereska enjoyed playing tennis and played in multiple U.S. Tennis Association leagues. He also liked golfing and skiing with family, friends and students, traveling to slopes across the country.
In his retirement, he traveled to Morocco, Alaska, Canada, South Africa, Europe, Hawaii and the Mediterranean.
Mr. Bereska was a communicant of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Roman Catholic Church, 20 E. Ridgely Road, Timonium, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Friday.
He is survived by his wife of 42 years, the former Carolyn Routh, who was a Baltimore County public schools elementary school teacher; two daughters, Lauren Saphier of Falls Church, Va., and Jamie Perry of Melbourne, Fla.; a brother, George Bereska of Carbondale, Colo.; a sister, Doris Garmer of Parkville; and five grandchildren.