A Renaissance man steps out of the picture

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the halls of the Baltimore School for the Arts, the waves of teen-agers -- some with the graceful walks of dancers, or paint-spattered clothing, or musical instruments in hand -- part for David Simon as though for Moses in the Red Sea.

"Mr. Simon, did you hear me? I got that job!"

"Mr. Simon, I got that part."

"Hey. Hey. Mr. Simon, what's happenin'?"

Of necessity, Mr. Simon makes his way slowly. Sometimes he stops to chat, sometimes not, but he carefully answers each remark -- always with respect, usually with a name.

As the only director the institution has ever had, Mr. Simon has led the Baltimore School for the Arts for 15 years with a blend of compassion and artistry spiced with a -- of Marine-like precision.

He has watched his graduates go on to college as well as to perform with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the American Ballet Theatre, the San Francisco Dance Company; the Philadelphia Symphony, the New World Symphony, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra; in regional theaters, on Broadway, in films.

Now Mr. Simon is himself about to graduate from another chapter in his long and unusually rich career.

Tomorrow when the doors of the grand old building on Cathedral Street that formerly housed the Alcazar Hotel close for summer vacation, they will also close on Mr. Simon's last academic year as director. Although he will remain at the school until autumn, his imminent departure marks a rite of passage for the school.

"His leaving is one of the great losses of talent for this community. You have only to look at his product -- all of the children who have come through that school and what they have accomplished -- to understand," says Hope Quackenbush, a member of the school's board of trustees.

Or as graduating senior Chris Moore puts it: "He, like, held the school together. It'll be really interesting to see what the next person does."

The search for someone to fill the vacancy left by Mr. Simon's retirement began late last year and is taking longer than &L; expected. But no one is surprised.

"We aren't trying to replace David Simon; you can't do that. But we think we'll find the right person. We are looking locally, nationally and even beyond to find someone with stature in the arts and with the experience of an administrator and educator," says Sally Michels, who heads the search committee.

Still, she adds, "It's a cliche, but it's true: David Simon is a hard act to follow."

What an colorful act he has been.

After all, Mr. Simon, 70, was a Marine who served as a radio operator in a special assault company at Iwo Jima and Guam. He performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He's known for taking home stray dogs and cats to his wife, Carole. He's renowned for mimicking everyone from board members to governors. And he's famous for his dance performances in the school's annual productions of the "Nutcracker."

Most of all, he is recognized for having built an infant school of the arts into an institution that's considered one of the best art schools in the country. And, last year, its students had the highest average SAT scores in the city.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was mayor when the school opened in 1980, remembers: "In the beginning, there were those who were skeptical that it was just another idea that wouldn't work, but it really turned out to be very successful. And David Simon was an outstanding leader."

In the early 1970s, as emphasis on arts classes dwindled, a group of Baltimoreans saw a need for a public school in which the most talented high school youths could be trained for careers in the arts. The students would be chosen on the basis of their talent, and they would be taught by professional artists. But their academic studies wouldn't be allowed to suffer.

Because the school has special goals, it receives about $9,411 per student in contrast to an average of $5,948 received by other city schools. The 300-student school hires an unusually high number of part-time faculty members (63) in addition to its 38 full-time teachers. And the school has its own foundation, which raises money to pay for such extras as master classes and to provide college scholarships to graduates.

An independent board

To safeguard the integrity of the school's mission, the city also set up an independent board of trustees to govern the school.

"There was a lot controversy and concern that the promise of the school was not going to be realized unless you had a board that could hire from outside the system and be free of bureaucracy and the original task force," said Tony Carey, who headed the board of trustees in 1979.

Enter Mr. Simon, a wiry man with the curly white hair of a terrier and the tenacity to match.

Mr. Simon, who had been dean of the Manhattan School of Music for nine years, wasn't particularly interested in moving. But when Mr. Carey asked him to come to Baltimore for an interview, he did.

When he began talking, the search committee took notice.

"We had seen 10 applications over a two-day weekend, and David was the last," says Mr. Carey. The combination of artistic talent, administrative experience and personality "just really impressed us. You could feel the energy."

The son of a Lithuanian house painter, Mr. Simon got a bumpy start in the arts. Though drawn to sketching and painting as a child, he was never encouraged to pursue his talent. "We were very poor and went through the Depression [during which] my father was unemployed and then wound up working for the WPA [Works Projects Administration]; there was no thought of art," he says.

He and his older brother found art anyway.

His brother, who worked as a shoeshine boy at the local barber shop, took mandolin lessons from the owner. His mother paid for the lessons by taking coffee to the barber every day. Mr. Simon got his chance when a local organization started a band and needed a baritone horn player. "They sort of gave me a horn as a scholarship," Mr. Simon says.

Scholarships

He won his first real music scholarship in a citywide contest at age 13. And the scholarships kept on coming until he had earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Manhattan School of Music.

Since then, he has worked as a consultant for the New York public schools. He has two children from a first marriage and three from his second. He has written scores for films and ballets and worked as a conductor. He has played the euphonium with the New York Philharmonic and the circus.

In 1986, when a friend gave him some watercolors, he returned to his first love -- painting. His first exhibition was earlier this year at the School for the Arts.

"He's an awesome figure in that he really is kind of a Renaissance man -- a musician, a really marvelous watercolors painter, and he has such empathy for people," says Mrs. Quackenbush, former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

From their first audition, students have been aware that Mr. Simon's school is unlike any other that they've attended, from its grandeur to its work ethic.

All who enter the renovated building are greeted by a majestic staircase, high marble ceilings, rooms more suitable to debutante balls than algebra or music theory.

Students here are expected to show up on time, to be prepared, to respect the work of others. No bells ring to mark the beginnings or endings of classes; all are responsible for being where they are supposed to be. "Right away we ask that everyone shows up every day on time, as if they had a job," says Mr. Simon. "That's how it is in real life."

Students understand that they are expected to pursue their art while behaving and keeping up with their regular studies -- or they are asked to leave.

"You have to keep your grades up and keep your behavior up, and it's hard," says Mr. Moore, a visual artist.

"Everybody just does it because of love for what they're doing."

Support is available, too. As the sign on the director's crowded corner office reads: "Knock and Come In."

No matter how small or large their concerns are, students know that they are welcome.

"He is a really great person to talk to if you have a problem," says Jennifer Gutman, a 1989 graduate who is a graduate student in violin at Florida State University. "He'd drop everything if you needed him."

Last Sunday, during the graduation ceremonies for the class of '95, Mr. Simon was at it again. As parents and relatives eagerly waited for their children to receive their diplomas, the director sat on the stage next to the keynote speaker, Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. As each of the more than 60 students crossed the stage, the director whispered -- so the visitor to the school would understand -- the name of each student, his talents, his high school successes, his dreams.

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