Walter G. Amprey, the Baltimore schools superintendent from 1991 to 1997 who was remembered as an innovative educator, died of a pulmonary embolism Tuesday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Finksburg resident was 69.
"He always put the interests of the children ahead of his personal interests," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who hired Dr. Amprey. "He was superintendent at a difficult time, too."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, "Following the death of my father [Del. Howard Peters Rawlings], there were few men whose advice I knew I could trust. Dr. Amprey was one. He was a progressive educator with national acclaim who brought a forward-looking, businesslike approach to education administration."
Before becoming city schools superintendent, Dr. Amprey worked in Baltimore County in several capacities, including as principal at Woodlawn High School.
"Walter Amprey was kind of one of a kind," said Nancy S. Grasmick, former Maryland schools superintendent. "He had been a very, very successful principal at Woodlawn, a huge school with many challenges."
He went on to supervise principals at high schools around the county.
"He was very successful in transforming the high schools in Baltimore County," Dr. Grasmick said. "He was such a willing learner, and he had such a magnetic personality that attracted people to him. He was able to galvanize people."
Others recalled his community service.
"He was the consummate citizen. He believed in bringing your gifts and talents to the public square in service to others," said Baltimore NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston, a childhood friend. "Walter worked diligently to provide hope and opportunities to our children against extraordinary challenges."
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Joseph Amprey, a World War II veteran and state employee, and Marian Jackson Amprey, a homemaker. The family lived on West Lanvale Street in the Poplar Grove neighborhood.
A 1962 graduate of Edmondson High School, he once considered becoming a preacher. He earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Morgan State University, a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from Temple University.
He began teaching social studies in 1966 at what was then Calverton Junior High. He later worked at Walbrook Senior High School. He left city schools to go to Baltimore County, where he became associate superintendent for staff and community relations. He worked there for 18 years and held a number of posts.
"We brought him in from the city because he was an excellent schools-based administrator," said former Baltimore County Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel. "He was well respected all around the county. He had a cooperative personality and believed in involving people. He practiced participatory management. Walter was also an innovative person. He realized we were coming into an age of technology, and he tried to involve his principals in the operation of the system. He was a man ahead of his time."
Dr. Dubel recalled an incident in which one of Dr. Amprey's Woodlawn students arrived at school with drugs but took off into some bushes when found out.
"Walter commandeered a motorcycle and chased him down," Dr. Dubel recalled.
Dr. Amprey became a finalist for the city's top post in 1991.
"I told Mayor Schmoke at the time that the county's loss was the city's gain," Dr. Dubel said.
While he was a Baltimore County educator, Dr. Amprey retained his ties to with the city, where he had friendships and political, professional and fraternal associations.
"It helps to know Baltimoreans," Dr. Amprey said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun around the time he was hired. "It just does. I'm a Baltimore kid. I know the players, and the players know me, and the players that don't know me know about me, because I've been here all my life."
During his six-year tenure, other educators praised Dr. Amprey as a reformer and risk-taker. In a Sun interview when he left the city, he gave himself two grades: "A" for effort, "B" for effectiveness.
"He spoke movingly and often of his conviction that all children are capable of high achievement," the 1997 article said. "In times of crisis, he was on the scene, quickly restoring a sense of confidence in the superintendent's office."
Colleagues said he was comfortable in the spotlight. News articles described him as diplomatic. He opened the door to charter schools by hiring Education Alternatives Inc. to manage nine schools and took heat from teachers unions over the move. The experiment, which proved to be costly, ultimately failed.
He also brought in Sylvan Learning Systems to tutor pupils. He reorganized budgeting and spending so that individual schools would have greater authority. But test scores remained flat during his administration.
Dr. Amprey left the post during a tumultuous period in the school system's recent history, when Mayor Schmoke decided to give up some control of the city schools in return for millions of dollars in additional state funding. A new governance model for the system was created and a new school board and new superintendent were appointed.
Dr. Grasmick said Mr. Schmoke gave up a lot of control "because he really felt it would help the system and I think that Walter probably played a major role" in helping to convince Mr. Schmoke it was the right decision.
After leaving the city schools, Dr. Amprey formed his own business and consulted on urban education issues and educational reform.
He was a former chairman of Associated Black Charities. At his death, he was the board chairman of LifeBridge Health Systems, which operates Sinai and Northwest hospitals, among other facilities. He was a board member of Stevenson University.
Dr. Amprey served on the national advisory board of the Johns Hopkins School of Education. He was named the education school's 2012 alumnus of the year. A Hopkins fellowship is named in his honor.
"Although he was a successful and visionary entrepreneur, he served on numerous nonprofit boards and mentored thousands of young leaders in Baltimore and throughout the country," Ms. Hill-Aston said. "He truly understood the concept of reaching back to help others achieve their dreams."
Dr. Grasmick recalled his smile and ability to engage people.
"He could light up a room," she said. "I think for the educational community generally, his death will be viewed as a huge loss."
Dr. Amprey was an avid reader and enjoyed trips to Hilton Head, S.C., where he played golf. A Democrat, he was an enthusiastic supporter of President Barack Obama and had met him.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 2 at New Shiloh Baptist Church, 2100 N. Monroe St., where he was a member.
Survivors include his wife of 14 years, Andrea Qualls Amprey, a clinical social worker; two daughters, Kimberley Amprey Flowers of Ellicott City and Keli Amprey of Baltimore; a stepdaughter, Che Evans of Owings Mills; two brothers, Joseph Amprey Jr. of Reading, Pa., and Wendell Amprey of Tulsa, Okla.; and three grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun