Richard DeLong, a longtime Carroll County educator and school administrator, died of a heart attack Thursday night after playing tennis. He was 55.
Crisis and grief counselors spent yesterday talking to teachers, staff and pupils at North Carroll Middle School in Hampstead, where DeLong was principal. Counselors also went to nearby Shiloh Middle School and North Carroll High, where many students knew DeLong.
"Having the students here has really helped," said Eileen Mayle, a former PTO president who has worked as a secretary at North Carroll Middle for nine years.
"It was really hard this morning at the staff meeting," she said. "It was just awful sitting there and realizing, 'It's really true.' But then the kids started arriving, and homeroom started, and the phones started ringing, and it was business as usual and that's really helped."
DeLong's colleagues described him yesterday as a personable and warm man with a great sense of humor, an educator who was intensely dedicated to his field as well as to the pupils and teachers with whom he worked. Principal at North Carroll for 12 years, he worked at least one lunch shift every day and manned the central hallway during every class change so he could see and be seen from all wings of the school.
Graduates frequently stopped by to say hello to DeLong, including some who had the dubious distinction of getting to know the top administrator through frequent referrals to his office. And school staff said he placed just as much importance on talking to parents and successful pupils as those who had problems at school.
"He had students who came back to him and said, 'I remember when I was in your office for doing something wrong, and you took the time to talk to me, and I've never forgotten that,'" said Mayle.
Others described him as an administrator who incessantly studied grade distributions, attendance records and test scores to search for patterns among his students long before Carroll County started placing such emphasis on "data-driven decisions."
"Inevitably, he was always showing me a chart of something he thought he could change at his school," said Greg Eckles, Carroll's director of secondary schools. "Every time I would visit as a director, he'd say, 'What can I do to improve?' which really tells you what his outlook about his job was."
DeLong also was active in countywide school activities and worked on several statewide education task forces. He was a train enthusiast, enjoyed traveling -- especially to Hawaii and New England -- and played tennis several times a week.
"He was healthy, disgustingly healthy," said longtime friend Richard J. Simmons, recalling DeLong's preference for salads over burgers and fries. "That's the horrible thing. It's just one of those mind-boggling anomalies where you say, 'This just isn't fair.' "
Simmons, the school system's supervisor of pupil personnel and student support services, and other school staff spent Thursday night telephoning North Carroll Middle staff members, alerting them to DeLong's death and letting them know what to expect the next morning at school.
"We knew full well that it's better if you can get bad news at home and allow them to prepare what they need to deal with the next morning and allow them to deal with their feelings first before they have to be helping students," Simmons said.
After the pledge of allegiance, teachers read an announcement about DeLong's death to their homeroom classes, letting them know grief counselors would be available throughout the day and for several days next week.
Simmons said that about a dozen pupils and several staff members asked to speak with counselors. Parents came to pick up about five pupils who were so upset that they asked to go home.
Teachers also sent home a letter with pupils to their parents about DeLong's death, including tips for answering their children's questions and helping them deal with the grief they might experience during the next few days.
DeLong had worked in Carroll schools since 1971, when he took a job as a learning disabilities teacher at New Windsor Middle. In 1974, he was promoted to assistant principal at the school, where he stayed until 1981.
For the next five years, he served as assistant principal at Westminster's East Middle School. He returned to New Windsor Middle in 1986, this time as principal until 1988, when he was named principal of North Carroll Middle School.
Before coming to Carroll County, he taught in Erie, Pa., and Beaver, Pa. DeLong earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1967 from Edinboro State College, now Edinboro University, in Pennsylvania, and a master's degree in education from Western Maryland College in 1975.
He is survived by his wife of 29 years, Peggy, a daughter, Jennifer DeLong, and a son, Shane DeLong.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.