Dr. Joseph T. Durham, former president of Baltimore City Community College, dies

Dr. Joseph Thomas Durham, a former Baltimore City Community College president, died June 26 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. Family members said a cause of death was not available.

The former Northwest Baltimore resident was 94.

“He was one of the early advocates who saw the importance and role that community colleges would play in the economic development of the city,” said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore. “He worked very hard to improve BCCC under some difficult situations.”

Born in Raleigh, N.C., he was the son of Watt Thomas Sr. and Emma Serena Hooker.

He moved to Baltimore’s Bond Street and attended Dunbar Elementary School, then graduated in 1941 from Dunbar High School.

At Dunbar he was president of the Honor Society and editor of the school newspaper, and he played the Executioner in “The Mikado." He received the school’s gold medal for English.

“School was always a happy place for him,” said his daughter, LaVerne Durham of Silver Spring.

“Reading was as vital as breathing,” she said. “One of his fondest memories was being permitted to go the local library on Saturday mornings. … He was a diligent student — some might say a nerd.”

Writing in 1990 in The Sun, Dr. Durham recalled his school experience: “As the eldest son of a poor East Baltimore family, I found hope and inspiration at the school. … The faculty and administration taught us that education ennobles us and that we could turn the scars of our lives into stars.”

He recalled that in the days of segregation, Dunbar had hand-me-down textbooks from City College and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and the school buildings were inferior.

“What we did have as teachers were men and women of character, charisma, intellect and strength,” he said.

His studies at then-Morgan State College were interrupted by service in World War II. He became an Army Air Force aircraft electrical mechanic and supply technician and served in Manila in the Philippines.

After the war he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from Morgan and was awarded the school’s Baldwin ­Hughes Oratorical Medal.

In 1946, while attending a Sunday school convention in Buffalo, N.Y., he met his future wife, Alice Virginia Spruill. They married in 1950.

In 1949 he received a master’s degree from Temple University and began teaching at Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg. His doctorate was obtained in 1963 from Columbia University.

He taught at Morgan and at Howard University, and was a dean and teacher at then-Coppin State College before joining the Maryland State Board of Higher Education in 1976. He headed a division that approved college programs, including desegregation plans.

Dr. Calvin W. Burnett, former president at Coppin, said, “Joseph was an excellent professor and a fine man.”

In 1985 then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer tapped Dr. Durham as interim president of Baltimore City Community College, which was in financial disarray and loosing students. Less than a year later he was named president. An editorial in The Sun praised his selection and noted that Dr. Durham “impressed city and college officials with his administrative skills and his ability to heal the deep-seated wounds that have festered at the school in recent years.”

He held the post until 1990 and returned to teaching at Coppin.

“My father set the tone of the home,” his daughter said. “The home was a bulwark of faith and spirituality. Each Sunday morning, before breakfast, the family would gather for prayer and devotionals before heading off to church. He was the best father anyone could ask for. He was a great provider.”

Dr. Durham was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and was historian of its Delta Lambda Chapter. He also served as vice chairman of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission and was a board member of the Municipal Employees Credit Union.

He once said about his career: "I have not just enjoyed my work or a job; it was a calling. It was a pleasure, and I would have paid for the privilege of being permitted to do it.”

Dr. Durham was a formal dresser. “Even on Sundays, after church when the rest of the family was getting comfortable, he kept his shirt and tie on until bedtime,” his daughter said.

He enjoyed travel and played Scrabble. He liked the music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and trimming his lawn.

Services were held July 6 at New Samaritan Baptist Church in Washington.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, LaDonna Stamper of Waldorf; a sister, Florence Oliver of Alton, Ill.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife of 54 years died in 2005.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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