Less than a week before her death, Natalie Wise Woodson was advising a nurse at Howard County General Hospital about how to motivate her child. She was also hoping for enough strength to speak at a forum about student achievement.
"Despite everything she was going through, she was all about helping the quality of life of all children," said her daughter, JoAnn Woodson Branche. "She was the greatest, nicest, most gentle spirit anyone had ever met. There was no one closer to God and stronger in faith that they had ever met."
Mrs. Woodson, the education chairwoman for the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a retired Baltimore City principal, died Tuesday after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. The longtime Columbia resident was 79.
"She worked tirelessly for children," said Ms. Woodson Branche, a lawyer who lives in Elkridge.
Born Natalie Wise to a maitre d'hotel father and a mother who died shortly after giving birth, she was inspired by her extended family.
She lived with an aunt, Sadie Dorsey, a teacher in Baltimore. Her aunt inspired her to become a teacher.
"I sort of came up in a family that was about doing things, productive things," Mrs. Woodson said in an interview with The Sun in June. "It's in the genes. You do what you can to make the world a better place."
She skipped two grades and became one of the first students in Baltimore City to receive a General Educational Development diploma in 1945. Shortly after, she attended Morgan State College, now Morgan State University, where she had gone during summer enrichment programs throughout elementary and junior high school.
She paid her way through college working as a clerk at the Social Security Administration. While in college, she met Cornelius Woodson at a social hosted by colleagues.
"We fell in love instantly," Mrs. Woodson said in the June interview. "It was love at first sight. He was a wonderful person; he was very supportive."
The couple married in 1954. They had two daughters, and alternated between attending school and working. Mr. Woodson became an attorney and Mrs. Woodson became a teacher in Baltimore after receiving a bachelor's degree from Coppin State Teachers College in 1960. In 1968, she received a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland, College Park.
In 1963, Mrs. Woodson was chosen to be one of three African-American teachers to work in the newly integrated Fallstaff Elementary School. She was once again asked to break the color barrier when she was promoted in 1970 to assistant principal at Leith Walk Elementary, a school where African-Americans accounted for less than 2 percent of the 1,450 students. In 1972, she became an assistant principal at Hamilton Elementary, a school with a majority-white student population.
In 1977 - the year her husband died of a heart attack - Mrs. Woodson was promoted to principal of Patapsco Elementary in Cherry Hill, where she had worked as an assistant principal since 1973. She retired in 1988, but continued to volunteer at Patapsco Elementary until 2005.
In retirement, Mrs. Woodson had a far-reaching impact on educational issues. In 1989, she was recruited to become the education committee chairwoman for the Howard County branch of the NAACP. In 1990, she launched Education Advocates for African Americans, an organization in which members accompanied African-American parents in Howard County to teacher conferences and meetings about individual education plans.
In 1994, Mrs. Woodson agreed to chair the NAACP's education committee at both the state and Howard County levels. As a result of her work with Education Advocates for African Americans, NAACP members began to take a more active role in monitoring school performance.
In 2000, Mrs. Woodson completed the first NAACP Education Report Card, a comprehensive look at attendance, graduation rates, dropout rates, suspensions and assessment scores for African-American students.
Howard County public schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin recalled that he last saw Mrs. Woodson on Dec. 13 when she addressed the school board about student achievement.
"Natalie has contributed greatly to making the school system and me personally aware of the needs of all students all the time," Dr. Cousin said.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Celebration Church, 6080 Foreland Garth in Columbia.
Mrs. Woodson is survived by another daughter, Veronica W. Baldwin of Jessup; and a grandson..