He was the kind of old-fashioned principal who walked the halls and talked to his students. "Why is my son using such vulgar language?" he would ask boys he caught playing the dozens in the hallways. "Why is my daughter wearing that skimpy little shirt?" he demanded of girls dressed inappropriately for school. To Dunbar High School Principal Elzee C. Gladden, who died last week of cancer at 61, his students were his children, and he treated them all like a loving father.
Mr. Gladden, who served as Dunbar's principal for 10 years before his retirement in 1992, was a 37-year veteran of the Baltimore City public schools. Teachers and colleagues knew him as an able administrator with a reputation for turning troubled schools around. Before becoming principal at Dunbar, his high school alma mater, he headed four other city schools and left them better than he found them. At Dunbar, he designed the nationally recognized partnership with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and helped win a $657,957 grant from RJR Nabisco to develop a weekend math and science program.
But his greatest impact was on the students whose education he oversaw with a firm but compassionate hand. Visitors to the school were amazed that he seemed to know every student by name. He never hesitated to confront a student when problems arose. But he also made it his business to find out the causes of those problems, and to work with the child's parents to resolve the difficulty so the learning process could go on. He wasn't afraid to put an arm around a student to lend advice or sympathy. But he was no pushover. He demanded that his students achieve, and if they didn't he wanted to know why.
Mr. Gladden's accomplishments were a testament to the wisdom of the old adage that a good principal can make all the difference between success and failure at any school. His responsibilities were huge, and he routinely managed situations that would try the wisdom of a Solomon and the patience of a saint. Yet what showed was the dedication he felt toward his students and staff and the pride he took in their efforts. In one way or another his career touched the lives of at least three generations of Baltimoreans, and no one who knew him is likely to forget the experience. That was Elzee Gladden's greatest gift and his most enduring legacy as an educator.