John L. Crew Sr., a career educator whose seven-year tenure as superintendent of Baltimore City public schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s was marked by rising student achievement — and by a reputation as a steady and calming influence — died Saturday of dementia at FutureCare Lochearn.
The longtime Ashburton resident was 85.
"I knew John when he was superintendent of schools and we both served in the mayor's cabinet," recalled Dr. Linwood Ivey, who retired in 1989 as director of the city's Urban Services Agency. "He was one of the brightest men I've ever known."
Continued Ivey: "He was direct and brutally honest about things. He knew what he was doing, understood education and loved children. I seldom see it mentioned that John was the one who should get the credit for increasing student test scores. I was always impressed with him."
When Dr. Crew resigned as superintendent of city public schools in 1982, an article in The Baltimore Sun described him as one of the "deans of big-city superintendents," whose job had been a "psychological and physical killer" and quite possibly the "toughest job in American public life."
Reflecting on his past several years ago, Dr. Crew told a Baltimore Sun reporter: "That was all 25 years ago. I tried to make a contribution, and I think I succeeded. When I was superintendent, I used to say: 'Forget about a lot of planning. You've got to get your hands dirty and touch people.'"
The son of a carpenter and a homemaker, Dr. Crew was born and raised in Westminster, S.C.
After graduating from East End High School, he enlisted in the Navy and served with the Seabees in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1952 from what is now Morgan State University, where he was a member of the Army ROTC. An active reservist, he eventually obtained the rank of colonel.
He began his career with the city school system in 1955 as an educational psychologist.
Dr. Crew left a decade later to become supervisor of research and evaluation for the Maryland Department of Education and, later, a teacher at West Chester State College in West Chester, Pa.
He returned to Baltimore and city schools in 1969, when he was appointed director of special services for pupils.
Dr. Crew later was appointed deputy head for planning, research and evaluation by then-superintendent Dr. Roland N. Patterson, where he served as the architect of the 1974 and 1975 desegregation plans.
It was during this time that Dr. Crew honed his skills as an administrator and planner. After Dr. Patterson was fired in 1975, the school board turned to Dr. Crew, who was appointed interim superintendent. On April 1, 1976, he was given the top job.
Dr. Crew — who had "kept his nose clean" and was not political like the former superintendent — won support for not being a "Patterson man," The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
After the end of the tempestuous Patterson era, it was Dr. Crew who brought a sense of calm to both staff and students.
Wrote Mike Bowler in his 1991 book, "The Lessons of Change: Baltimore Schools in the Modern Era": "[Dr. Crew] was not a native Baltimorean, but he had been with city schools since 1955, when the 'burning question,' he remembers today, 'was whether black folks could test white kids.'"
Continued Mr. Bowler, who covered city schools for The Sun: "Crew is not an articulate public speaker, but he can express himself with burning intensity. On one such occasion early in his tenure, he told a friend, 'I'm going to show the world that black kids can learn as well as whites. I'm going to do it in five years.'"
It was Dr. Crew's intense focus on the three Rs that eventually bore fruit. "He developed his own proficiency tests that were to be administered in each grade in addition to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, in grades three, five, seven and nine," Mr. Bowler wrote.
He found the money to hire 100 reading teachers who focused their efforts on students in junior high, to which many nonreaders had been promoted.
Dr. Crew told Mr. Bowler that his goal during those years was "to get the schools at norms in reading and math, and we did it."
By 1980, Dr. Crew and the school board were seeing positive results. "[T]est scores [were] up, discipline problems were down and public confidence in education seemed to be on the mend. By running against all prevailing trends, Baltimore's good news became reportable," Dr. Crew told Mr. Bowler.
It was during Dr. Crew's administration that test scores, which had been declining for 20 years, approached national levels — the highest levels since the late 1960s, reported The Baltimore Sun in 1982.
Money problems and federal budget cuts plagued Dr. Crew, with only one of his seven budgets not running a deficit. Nevertheless, Dr. Crew found the money to restore City College, turning it into a citywide, co-educational liberal arts school in 1977.
The School for the Arts also was created during Dr. Crew's time as superintendent.
Dr. Crew expanded the often-criticized special education program, which had been the subject of a 1972 task force report that he wrote.
"I was on the school board in the 1970s, when he wrote the Crew Report, and I think that's what vaulted him into prominence," said Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, an outspoken advocate for special education students who stepped down from the school board in 2008.
"He was absolutely top-notch, and the Crew Report was a pioneering expose of the shortcomings of special education," Hettleman said in an interview Sunday. "We can all look back and see that he was the first to shine a light on this shortcoming."
Dr. Crew described his job as "a real killer." During his years as superintendent, he seldom took a vacation or a day off.
He told The Evening Sun that "an urban school superintendent can be eaten up in a week."
"You've got to be tough," he said. "You can't let your ego get in the way, because you have to take it from every direction."
After leaving city schools, Dr. Crew worked as a mental health consultant for Glass Mental Health Systems and Bon Secours Health Systems. He retired in 2005.
He was married in 1948 to Brooksie Wilks, whom he met in grade school.
Dr. Crew was a member of Grace Presbyterian Church.
He enjoyed reading, listening to classical music and playing cards.
Plans for funeral services were incomplete Sunday.
In addition to his wife of 63 years, who is an administrative assistant at Coppin State University, Dr. Crew is survived by a son, John L. Crew Jr. of Ashburton, and a daughter, Kimberly Crew-Smith of Baltimore.