After 83 years, the UM diploma still matters


A headline in yesterday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect number of years for the period of time from Ferdinand Korff's graduation from the University of Maryland to now. The correct number is 73.

The Sun regrets the error.

In an outdoor ceremony, with his father watching proudly, Ferdinand Korff received his diploma on May 30, 1917, from what is now the University of Maryland College Park. There was little applause -- only about 40 graduates in all -- and, after declining a second lieutenant's commission, Mr. Korff took the next train home to Baltimore. They ran hourly.

"I forget a lot, but some things you remember," Mr. Korff, 95, said yesterday during a chat in the parlor of the Church Home, a

retirement-care community in Fells Point.

Memories make do in lieu of the many possessions that firemen had to toss from his Rodgers Forge apartment three years ago after it caught on fire: a collection of fine German cameras, the 102 papers he wrote on preventing typhoid fever and salmonella when these were common, his framed awards.

But they do not sufficiently account for everything.

"It is of great importance to have some sort of proof of my accomplishment," he wrote officials at the University of Maryland last month in asking for a duplicate of his college diploma.

This afternoon, they are coming to Baltimore to deliver another one.

Nowadays, diplomas are common -- 7,000 a year are issued at College Park -- but they were rare in Mr. Korff's day.

He had been admitted to study chemistry after passing a test in geology and farm crops. He remembers paying $25 a month in room and board to live with a professor and his wife. The majority of his classmates were from rural areas, the sons of farmers, and he "learned how to milk a cow till my hand got tired."

His professors were "not well-trained, but they gave you everything they had. If they knew something about mineralogy, they taught you about mineralogy," he said. "Their teaching method was more like tutelage -- there were four in our class."

He was a yearbook photographer, and besides studying chemistry, according to the 1917 college yearbook, he specialized "in learning to drive with one arm." The other, the book hints, was wrapped around the woman who was to become his wife.

After graduation, he went to work analyzing German poison gases used in southern France during World War I.

And for 40 years, until he was "fired" for turning 70 in 1965, Mr. Korff was director of the Baltimore Bureau of Food Control and its predecessor offices, which worked to prevent communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, carried through food and water.

The test for that job had been to draft a plan to combat typhoid feverin an imaginary city of 900,000. Over the years, he built up a small office that tested milk and water into a comprehensive prevention program that set standards for restaurants, taverns, drugstores, hotels, confectioneries and even the A&P; food stores.

He devised many enforcement methods, but what worked best was the "publicity system." This consisted of befriending newspaper reporters and threatening would-be violators with adverse publicity.

"We developed a reputation -- and this is bragging -- for being the best [public health] control bureau in the United States," he said. "There were more cases of food poisoning reported in Baltimore than anywhere -- because we dug them out." Further, he adds, it was the first in the country to hire black inspectors, two of whom visited him last month.

He continues to keep up in his field, having "trained" librarians at the Maryland State Library for the Handicapped to keep science tracts coming: astronomy, botany, chemistry. Two weeks ago, he finished a 1,400-page "talking book" on DNA.

He remembers the prices of his several homes in Baltimore and the violations he recorded on nursing homes on the Eastern Shore he inspected in semiretirement -- one sold sleeping pills for 50 cents and fined residents every time they missed the toilet.

Some memories he would rather not discuss. Such as why his daughter, who was commissioned a Navy lieutenant years ago, hasn't called her parents since. It is a private matter, he says, adding that his wife, Marguerite, died eight years ago of heartache.

Sometimes he is lonely. He takes his meals with a retired judge, a retired Hopkins professor and two former Episcopal priests. Hard of hearing and unable to read, he has taken to sending taped conversations to friends in England and Florida. Sometimes the talk turns to schooling, and inevitably, the questions come up: Where did you go? What was your degree in?

Mr. Korff remembers that around the time he attended college, its name changed from the Maryland Agriculture College to the Maryland State College and, finally, when it joined with the professional schools in Baltimore, it became the University of Maryland.

What he cannot remember, he says, is what it was called the year he graduated.

And that's why he wants a copy of his diploma.

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