Charles I. Ecker, a career school administrator who surprised political observers and became Howard County executive, then later served as superintendent of Carroll County schools, died of cancer Wednesday at his Columbia home. He was 86.
"Chuck was an outstanding leader. He led Howard County through some of its most significant years of growth. He helped guide and direct Howard County's transformation into the county we know it today," said Allan H. Kittleman, the current Howard County executive.
"Chuck had a long and accomplished career in public service," Mr. Kittleman said. "He will be remembered for a lifetime of tireless commitment and steadfast devotion to public education.
Charles Isaac Ecker was born and raised in Uniontown and was a 1945 graduate of Westminster High School. As a young man, he worked in feed mills and for the Portland Cement Co. He served in the Navy from 1945 to 1947.
He earned a bachelor's degree in biology and physical education at what is now McDaniel College. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina.
Dr. Ecker began his teaching career in the 1950s at Taneytown Junior/Senior High School and at North Carroll High School in Hampstead. In 1960, he was named to the Carroll County public school's central office as its supervisor of transportation and physical education.
In 1963, he became assistant superintendent of Carroll County schools. He served as director of business affairs and assistant superintendent of Prince George's County schools from 1967 to 1974. He was deputy superintendent of Howard County schools from 1974 to 1989, when he retired.
"Chuck provided significant leadership and guidance through the years on a wide range of educational issues ranging from modernizing public school facilities to developing blueprints for quality education and comparable testing methods," said Mr. Kittleman.
In 1989, at the urging of Republican friends, he ran as a Republican for Howard County executive against Elizabeth Bobo. Newspapers called her a "seemingly invincible incumbent."
He won the election by a 244-vote margin, 25,637 to 25,393 — a margin that widened to 450 votes after absentee ballots were counted.
"Ecker's victory is impressive regardless. Despite his popularity among people who worked with him when was deputy superintendent of schools, Ecker was initially an unknown to two-thirds of the electorate," said a 1990 Baltimore Sun article.
He explained his campaign strategy in a Sun article: "There was a feeling among the people that government did not listen," he said. "And a concern about tax increases: How we are going to pay for the growth that has already occurred in the county?"
Dr. Ecker had a campaign goal of knocking on 10,000 doors and later said he lost count at "somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000."
Dr. Ecker served as Howard County executive from December 1990 to December 1998.
State Sen. Gail H. Bates, a former aide to Dr. Ecker, recalled that he drove himself to county events. "He never used a police officer as a driver," she said.
"I don't think the man had an enemy," she said. "For him, it was all about serving the public."
Recalled as a fiscal conservative, Dr. Ecker drove a 1972 pea-green Chevelle convertible with whitewall tires and an eight-track tape player.
"Known for his austere budgeting skills and his taciturn, though friendly, demeanor, Dr. Ecker's devotion to his car might reveal as much about him as anything he's ever said. He's not a quitter, and he hates to waste money," said a 2000 Sun article. "He drove the big V-8 through two energy crises, and he remained so devoted to the original color that although it was once mistakenly painted a different shade of green, he had it returned to its rightful hue next time around."
The article said the vehicle was repainted several times, had its engine and automatic transmission rebuilt, had four new tops over the years, reupholstered seats and a new left rear quarter-panel.
"I hate to total up what I spent over the years," Dr. Ecker said in 2000. "It was just a good car. I always had good luck [with] it. I really don't like to buy a new car."
In 1998, he ran for governor but lost to Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the Republican primary. He had started his own consulting firm and was living in Howard County at the time.
Dr. Ecker returned to Carroll County in 2000 as interim superintendent following the retirement of Superintendent William Hyde, after a grand jury investigation into school construction funds.
After two years as interim superintendent, Dr. Ecker was appointed to superintendent. He served two four-year terms before announcing his retirement following the 2009-2010 school year.
Jim Doolan, president of the Carroll County Board of Education, described Dr. Ecker as vibrant, positive and outgoing.
"He was an icon for education in Maryland," said Mr. Doolan. "He was always looking for ways to make improvements and make things better."
As superintendent, he was an advocate for Operation Recognition, a program that helped veterans who left school early receive their high school diplomas. Attending a ceremony in 2001 for a dozen World War II veterans living in Carroll, Dr. Ecker told The Sun it was "the nicest and most important" graduation ceremony he had attended.
Colleagues said Dr. Ecker was an early proponent of late arrival and early dismissal for inclement weather days. They said he started the practice by calling the radio stations personally and telling them schools would open late.
Stephen Guthrie, current superintendent of Carroll County public schools, worked with Dr. Ecker from 2000 to 2010 as supervisor of human resources, director of human resources and assistant superintendent of administration.
"I have never met or worked with somebody with such a broad base of experience in all my career," Mr. Guthrie said of Dr. Ecker. "In working with him, I received the benefit of that wide experience."
Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman first met Dr. Ecker when he was a student at Centennial High School and Dr. Ecker was a charity auctioneer.
"He was an engaging gentleman. A committed public servant whose ethics were beyond reproach. His ethics were impeccable, and he was a very thoughtful person," recalled Mr. Ulman.
"Chuck got rid of the traffic signals on Route 175 and Route 29," he said. "He ushered Howard County into a new age, transforming it from being a bedroom community and getting companies to set up shop there."
When Mr. Ulman was redecorating his office, he found a teal-colored chair that had been used by Dr. Ecker, who had left it behind after leaving the county executive's office.
"I called him up and said we'll come up with a price. I was about to deliver the chair to his house when he called and said he didn't want anyone questioning the ethics of it and declined the chair," said Mr. Ulman. "That's how Chuck was.
"He said it was important for 'an elected official to always do the right thing, stick with your gut, even though it might not be popular. Always do what you feel is right,'" said Mr. Ulman. "He wasn't your typical outgoing politician, but was rather a matter-of-fact Southern gentleman to whom people easily warmed," said Mr. Ulman.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at the Interfaith Center at Wilde Lake, Columbia, 10431 Twin Rivers Road.
Visitation will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m Sunday at the Harry H. Witzke Family Funeral Home, 4112 Old Columbia Pike in Ellicott City
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Peggy Brown Ecker; two sons, Charles Daniel Ecker of Gettysburg, Pa., and Donald T. Ecker of Columbia; two brothers, William Ecker of Westminster and Ronald Ecker of Satellite Beach, Fla.; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Lauren Loricchio contributed to this article.