Educator Samuel L. Banks was remembered last night as a brutally honest, but gentle, man who cared as much about speaking his mind to politicians and school administrators as he did about making sure city school children ate breakfast each morning.
The memorial service for Dr. Banks -- who died July 19 -- drew 400 people to Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Auditorium, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and scores of teachers and principals who worked with him at the city's education department over the last three decades.
Dr. Banks, 64, died of an apparent heart attack, shortly after he awoke at his Prince George's County home for another day of work at Baltimore school headquarters.
Mr. Schmoke recalled a Samuel Banks who was ahead of his time -- not only as a teacher who promoted black history 30 years ago, but one who pioneered multicultural social studies "before it became fashionable."
As Dr. Banks' student at City College during the 1960s, the mayor said: "My very first paper for him was about Black Muslims. The school system didn't recognize Black History Month, but Dr. Banks decided to have his own Black History Month."
Speaking of Dr. Banks' unrelenting call for racial equality, Mr. Schmoke said, "Last week the Board of Regents at the University of California eliminated affirmative action. If Dr. Banks had not died [the day before] surely their action would have broken his heart."
As a city school teacher and administrator for 36 years, Dr. Banks was a mentor to many educators.
A prolific writer, he penned articles and letters to the editor for The Sun, The Evening Sun and the Afro-American, often ridiculing the Supreme Court, Congress and even his own boss, city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.
Last night, Dr. Amprey described Dr. Banks as a man who was gentle with people, but not above referring to some as "mental Lilliputians."
"Sam was going to tell it. He was not going to be silenced. He was gentle, but I saw his anger and his disappointment," said Dr. Amprey who was criticized publicly by Dr. Banks in a recent article in The Sun for the superintendent's unusually close relationship with the head of a private company hired to run several schools.
Dr. Amprey and others alluded to Dr. Banks' extensive vocabulary.
"The words came out with ease when he was passionate. I would have to stop him and say, 'Wait a minute, Sam, what does that mean?' He would stop and spell the words and tell me their meaning," Dr. Amprey said to laughter from the mourners.
School board president Philip Farfel remembered visiting a school with Dr. Banks, the two of them sitting uncomfortably on small chairs at small tables while Dr. Banks spoke with great ease to the children "about the importance of eating breakfast -- using many languages."
"It was important to him for children to be healthy and to be well fed," said Dr. Farfel.
A wake for Dr. Banks will be held today at Walker Memorial Baptist Church, 2020 13th Street NW, Washington, from 6 to 9 p.m.
His funeral will be Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Walker Memorial church.
For $3.50, mourners can ride a bus to the funeral Wednesday that leaves at 9 a.m. from the school headquarters' parking lot at North Avenue and North Calvert Street.
A scholarship fund has been established in Dr. Banks' name at Howard University -- his alma matter.