Dorothy L. Moore, a feisty, passionate advocate for Howard County's poor over a 36-year career, will retire as director of the county's anti-poverty agency March 31, she said yesterday.
"The lady's a legend," said County Executive James N. Robey, another career public servant and Howard County native. "She is ruthless when it comes to serving her customers, her clients. She's one of the strongest advocates I've ever seen for any cause."
Retirement is a move the 18-year Community Action Council director has thought about for several years, and one she has frequently put off. But no more, she said.
"I felt I had taken the agency as far as I really could - along with others," she said. "It hasn't been easy. There have been some bad times, but I just really consider it a privilege and an honor to have served Howard County."
"I'm not indispensable," she added. "Somebody else will come along and do what needs to be done."
Moore's agency operates the county's Head Start program and offers other services that help people facing medical, housing or social crises ranging from help with utility bills to a food bank. The agency's board soon will advertise the position, she said.
Moore, 70, said she was close to retiring in 2000, when a boiler failure that displaced the agency's Head Start classes from the former Elkridge Elementary school created a crisis. Support from Robey and the state produced a new six-classroom Head Start building next to Cradlerock School in Columbia that opened in 2002.
Then the state's budget crisis resulted in a $500,000 cut from Head Start, creating yet another emergency. Finally, she helped lead a search for a new Head Start director. Joy Lanier was hired Dec. 6, and Moore's retirement letter was submitted the next day, she said
At first, Moore said, "I was very sad, but now I'm looking forward to retirement." It will provide more time for bingo and her missions to Ghana, where she has helped organize construction of a primary school for 100 children in a poor, rural village, she said.
"I have to be doing something," she said.
Moore grew up in rural Highland as one of seven children in a poor African-American family. She attended the county's then-segregated public schools, graduating from Harriet Tubman High School. The building now houses some of the Head Start classes her agency administers.
She got a job in 1969 as a community organizer for the quasi-governmental agency, rising to become administrator in 1987.
Moore won praise yesterday from current and former Howard officials who have dealt with her over the years - and know firsthand how enthusiastic and persistent she can be.
"She's a strong-willed person, and I respect that," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who was county executive from 1986 to 1990. "She knows Howard County like the back of her hand. She'll be very much missed."
Carroll County schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, who served eight years as Howard executive after Bobo, said Moore "did a wonderful job with Head Start and other programs for the needy. She made a strong case for funding," even during the recession of the early 1990s, when money was scarce.
Moore is one of a group of Howard leaders whose public service spans the county's rapid transformation from a rural farm community 50 years ago to the prosperous, suburban hub it has become, and who now are slowly retiring.
In recent years, Moore has said reminding residents that wealthy Howard has needy poor people has been one of her greatest challenges.
"She wasn't the most popular person most of the time," said Sam Marshall, who retired last year after three decades at the county's social services director. As a strong, determined advocate for the often voiceless poor, "she took some risks," Marshall said.
"At times, it's been something people didn't want to hear. It's uncomfortable," said Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county's Department of Citizens Services and a 28-year veteran.
"She truly believes," said Judy Pittman, a former Community Action Council board member. "She cares about the poor people, the disenfranchised, the neediest people in Howard County - that is part of every fiber of her body."
Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, conceded that Moore's strong advocacy for her cause has produced occasional differences of opinion.
"What makes it easy for me to work with her is I know her intent is well-meaning," he said. "A job like hers requires a great deal of energy and compassion."
Andrea Ingram, director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the county's homeless shelter, said Moore's help has been critical for people who need a security deposit, help paying off back utility bills or other aid to get re-established in an apartment.
"She's certainly entitled to some time off," Ingram said. "Dottie has certainly done her part."