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Sterling S. "Spence" Keyes, educator

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Sterling S. "Spence" Keyes, a veteran educator who had served as acting superintendent for Baltimore public schools in the early 1970s and later held positions with the New York State Department of Education, died Nov. 8 of prostate cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The Odenton resident was 78.

"Spence was always at the forefront as a person of color who held positions that heretofore had been held by whites. He was a trailblazer during changing times," said James M. Gaughan, mayor of the village of Altamont, N.Y., who had worked with Dr. Keyes at the New York State Department of Education.

"The man had a certain elan about him. He was not only bright and cheery, but was always positive and never negative," said Mr. Gaughan. "He had an analytical mind and combined that with a wonderful sense of humanity."

The son of an iceman and a homemaker, Sterling S. "Spence" Keyes was born and raised in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., and graduated from Asbury Park High School.

After earning a bachelor's degree in 1954 from what was then Shippensburg State Teachers College in Shippensburg, Pa., he began his career as an elementary school educator in Red Bank, N.J.

In 1962, he moved to a home he had built in Freeport, N.Y., and joined the faculty of Hempstead High School in Hempstead, N.Y., where he coached football.

"He introduced lacrosse to Hempstead High School. There had been no lacrosse team there," said a daughter, Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard, who lives in Baltimore.

While in Hempstead, he earned a master's degree in education from Rutgers University and served on the staff of Thomas D. Sheldon, head of the Hempstead public school system.

Dr. Keyes was in charge of federal-state relations, and after Dr. Sheldon was appointed superintendent of Baltimore public schools, he came here in 1968 as his administrative assistant.

A year later, Dr. Keyes was appointed associate superintendent for administration and finance.

When Dr. Sheldon resigned his post as superintendent in 1971, the city school board in a unanimous decision appointed Dr. Keyes as interim superintendent.

He was the youngest man ever and the first African-American to head the city school system. Dr. Keyes held the job for six months.

In 1972, Dr. Keyes, who was associate superintendent of schools, took a leave of absence to earn his doctorate in educational administration at the University of Pennsylvania. He resigned his post in 1973.

He returned to New York City, where he took a job with the New York State Education Department as a coordinator of state education services, a new post created by the New York Board of Regents.

Once again, he found himself working under his old mentor, Dr. Sheldon, who was a deputy commissioner with the education department.

"I'll be mostly concerned with reading, math and general management services," he told The Baltimore Sun in a farewell interview at the time.

"I've spent most of the time studying urban school systems, and of the large cities, I think Baltimore has the best chance to make a go of things," he said.

"We were colleagues at the New York State Department of Education in the early 1980s in the New York office, which was in the World Trade Center," said Mr. Gaughan. "He was director of civil rights and cultural relations, which had been a newly established department."

"He ensured the fair distribution of federal funds throughout the State of New York, and with the education of young people as the focal point of his career and believing that 'All the children can learn,' he was later chosen to head up the Wyandanch Union Free School District in Suffolk County, N.Y.," said Judge Heard.

When Dr. Keyes began his new job in 1988, he took over a troubled school district that had deficient test scores; 45 percent of high school graduates that year went on to college. Low pay resulted in a high rate of teacher turnover, and poor attendance was chronic.

At the time, in an interview with Long Island's Newsday, Dr. Keyes said, "The teacher has to set up the kid for learning, so he actually likes to come to school. 'Did you forget your lunch bag?' 'I missed you yesterday.' Show him that he matters, that he's important."

Dr. Keyes, who decorated his office with a poster that expressed his philosophy, "All the children can learn," told his teachers that sometimes a smile and a note of encouragement could make all the difference in a student's performance.

A year later, Dr. Keyes reflected on his first year as head of the school district. He eliminated 40 staff positions and persuaded the state to grant the district additional funds.

"I came here and said I was crazy," he told the newspaper. "I could have retired."

He finally did retire in 1992, and moved to a home he and his wife, the former Frances Wade, had built in Chesapeake, Va. Since 2006, the couple had lived at Eden Brook, an Odenton condominium development.

Dr. Keyes was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and volunteered as a docent at the Benjamin Banneker Museum and at Sarah's House, a woman's shelter. He was also an active participant in the Griots' Circle of Maryland Inc.

At what is now Shippensburg University, he established and endowed the Keyes Family Scholarship fund for athletes in need of financial support.

He was an active member of the Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church, where he taught Sunday school.

He collected baseball caps and was an Orioles and New York Giants football fan.

A memorial service will be held at noon Friday at his church, 8424 Piney Orchard Parkway, Odenton.

In addition to his wife of 57 years and his daughter, Dr. Keyes is survived by two other daughters, Karen Keyes Coates of Pasadena and Leslie J. Keyes of Odenton; a brother, Frederick Keyes of Jacksonville, Fla.; and three granddaughters.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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