Paul J. Beckham Sr., a career Baltimore City Community College educator and World War II veteran, died Feb. 8 from cancer at Gilchrist Center Towson. The longtime Ashburton resident was 95.
“Paul had a mega-watt smile, a sincere handshake, and always an encouraging word,” said Milton M. Mayo Jr. of Stoneleigh, who was a student worker at Baltimore City Community College.
“I met him quite by coincidence at the college, and he became my mentor. There was always a quiet confidence about him,” he said. “He always made a stately appearance, and when he walked into a room, he got your attention. He was very popular among the students and with his peers.”
Will Giles of Germantown was a student of Mr. Beckham’s at Polytechnic Institute and a member of the Class of 1967. “He was a very amiable, friendly and sociable person, and just a great, great guy,” Mr. Giles said.
Paul Juan Beckham, the son of Benjamin Harrison Beckham, a real estate broker, and his wife, Grace Williams Beckham, a homemaker, was born and raised in Anderson, Ind.
After graduating in 1941 from Anderson High school, he began his college studies at Howard University and worked part-time for the War Department.
In 1943, he was drafted into the Army and was assigned as a staff sergeant to the 990th Quartermaster Service Co., a segregated unit, which was part of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army.
Mr. Beckham’s unit fought at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, when the German Army opened its last offensive push toward the west along an 80-mile front.
“Although not always eager to discuss the wages of war, he did tell the story of hearing the advancing columns of Panzer tanks on Bastogne, and how he was one of the last group of soldiers to depart the area during the German offensive,” his son, Steward D. Beckham Sr. of Ashburton, wrote in a biographical profile of his father.
“He almost never discussed, and what took a toll on him emotionally, was what it was like being part of a detail to assist liberated concentration camps and coming face to face with the conditions of the victims and survivors,” he wrote. “It became an early example to him of man’s sometimes inhumanity to man.”
Discharged in 1946, he returned to Howard University, where he became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, serving as its first postwar Chapter Polemarch. He was also an editor on the The Hilltop, the university newspaper.
He left Howard in 1948 and went to work for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington as a statistical analyst.
Mr. Beckham enrolled at what is now Morgan State University, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1961 in political science. As a Ford Foundation scholar at the Johns Hopkins University —the only African-American out of 48 foundation scholars — he obtained a master’s degree in 1964 in teaching history.
He began teaching history in 1964 at Lombard Junior High School and rose to become department chair. Two years later, he integrated the faculty at Poly as its first African-American instructor.
“He showed up my senior year and was inspirational as a teacher, particularly for me, because the African-American student population at Poly was less than 10 percent,” Mr. Giles recalled.
“Finally, we had a role model; not only was it important, it was phenomenal,” he said. “At old Poly, as African-American students, we thought it was a significant event.”
Mr. Giles recalled Mr. Beckham as a teacher being very “thorough, professional, and quite a good teacher.”
“He was a demanding teacher — they were all demanding at Poly in those days — and he cut you no slack because you were an African-American; in fact, because he had high academic standards, he may have been a little harder on us,” he said.
Mr. Beckham left Poly in 1970 when he was hired as assistant director of summer sessions at what is now Baltimore City Community College, where he was later named dean of continuing education and community services.
Charlotte J. Moore of Pikesville, a former Ashburton neighbor, was dean of students and executive assistant to the college’s president.
“I knew that Paul had been a superb history teacher and as dean of continuing education had a great affinity for the students, who respected and admired him,” Mrs. Moore said. “The most important thing that impressed me and my husband was that Paul was the kind of person you could depend on.”
Mr. Mayo and Mr. Beckham discovered they were members of the same fraternity.
“It was always awe-inspiring when he talked about his life and experiences,” he said. “I was 27 when I lost my father, and I felt that he became a surrogate dad to me. He was so committed to helping young people find their way.”
Mr. Mayo recalled being impressed with Mr. Beckham from their first meeting at the college.
“What struck me was how articulate and what a smart guy he was. You wanted to emulate this man,” he said. “He was educated, admired and always gave sage advice.”
After retiring in 1985, he continued working as the administrative assistant to the director of the ROTC Enhanced Skills Training Program at Morgan.
In the larger community, Mr. Beckham was chairman of the Urban League board of directors, chairman of the Druid Hill YMCA and president, treasurer and historian of The Club of Baltimore, one of the oldest African-American investment clubs in the nation.
He was a member, deacon and elder of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.
In 1949, he married the former Blanche Moore, a Baltimore public schools teacher and guidance counselor.
He and his wife were members of several social clubs, some of which included The Moles, The Northeasteners, The Epicureans, The Chums and the Scorekeepers.
Mr. Beckham enjoyed gardening, working on his home and looking out for neighbors. He continued to be a “student of history and American history,” his son said.
“When my husband passed and was living alone in Ashburton, he looked in on me to make sure nothing was wrong,” Mrs. Moore said. “Paul was like the brother I never had. he was such a gentleman.”
A memorial service will begin with the family hour at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 24, followed by funeral services at his church, 2110 Madison Ave., Baltimore.
In addition to his wife of 69 years and his son, Mr. Beckham is survived by another son, Paul J. Beckham Jr. of Ashburton; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.