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Camille Wheeler, retired Baltimore County Social Services chief, dies

Camille Wheeler headed the Baltimore County Department of Social Services for 19 years.
Camille Wheeler headed the Baltimore County Department of Social Services for 19 years. (Family photo/Handout)

Camille Baudot Wheeler, who headed Baltimore County’s Department of Social Services, died of pancreatic cancer Tuesday at her home in Towson. She was 80.

She was credited with creating a pioneering specialized independent-living program for youth aging out of foster care, a sexual abuse investigation and treatment center, and services for women in the county jail.

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Born in Richmond, Virginia, and raised in Alabama, she was the daughter of Frank W. Wheeler, a civil engineer and teacher, and his wife, Camille Baudot, a homemaker.

She left Alabama to attend Goucher College in 1959.

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“Growing up, she led what she describes as a privileged and sheltered life,” said a friend and former co-worker, Judith Schagrin. “While attending Goucher, she learned about the consequences of racism and discrimination in the era of civil rights involvement.

“Her return home to Alabama after graduation coincided with race riots and protests,” said Ms. Schagrin. “Camille was an integrationist who found her point of view wasn’t welcome and as she said, didn’t fit in with the times.”

She returned Baltimore and joined the old Baltimore City Department of Public Welfare.

In a memoir, Ms. Wheeler said she discovered she “had no business mucking around in people’s lives without any background.”

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She enrolled in the then-new University of Maryland School of Social Work and earned a master’s degree. She specialized in social policy and community organizing. She went on to be a caseworker, training specialist, and Hampden district manager.

She worked under the city’s former social service director, Esther Lazarus. She also worked with former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who was also been a social worker.

She became the director of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services in 1979 and remained in that position until being forced into retirement after clashing in 1998 with County Executive Dutch Ruppersperger.

“This followed the tragic death of a child, although at the time the county executive emphasized her independent spirit and unwillingness to bend her beliefs to fit his own agenda,” said Ms. Schagrin. “Some may regard Ms. Wheeler as outspoken to a fault.”

A 1998 Baltimore Sun editorial said that [Ms. Wheeler’s] “fall likely has more to do with her fervent independence clashing with the executive’s preference for teamwork and his desire to exercise his own personality and beliefs in the social services realm.”

The newspaper’s editorial also said, “Ms. Wheeler’s competence and dedication is not in question. She is highly regarded by the Child Welfare League of America.”

”To know Camille was to respect and cherish her opinions, always rendered gently but based on deep understanding of whatever issues she was addressing,” said Ms. Schagrin, a fellow social worker. “She was self-effacing woman. Ms. Wheeler was not one for the limelight or attention despite her many accomplishments, and the impact she had on so many.

“She had strong views about the high quality of services. She made a requirement that her social workers had a master’s degree and a license. She felt our clients needed the best-trained, -educated professionals,” said Ms. Schagrin.

From 1998 to 2016, Ms. Wheeler taught social policy, management and community organization at her alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

“She took the time to talk to me as a young social worker,” said Debra Linsenmeyer, an administrator at the School of Social Work. “She helped me be a much braver decision-maker. She helped me make the best decisions, not always perfect decisions, but the best decisions.”

Ms. Linsenmeyer also said, “Camille was never shy about her opinions. They were based on good information but not always well received.”

Ms. Wheeler was recalled for teaching career.

“Camille was a dedicated teacher who held her students, as well as faculty, to high standards,” said Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the School of Social Work. “She knew a great deal about the child welfare system and brought her tremendous knowledge forward to the benefit of us all.”

Ms. Wheeler also served on many boards, including board memberships for the League of Women Voters and the Pro Bono Counseling Program.

“She was very cultured and erudite. She loved the arts and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She enjoyed plays at Center Stage, and she had a special place in her heart for the Walters Art Museum,” said Ms. Schagrin.

She was an avid traveler and read newspapers. She belonged to the Hamilton Street Club and was its assistant treasurer and member of the French Table. She was also an advocate for immigrants.

“Camille was like my adopted mother. She gave me numerous opportunities as a new immigrant from Colombia. We developed a close relationship over 18 years,” said Carol Velandia, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “She showed me the ropes and infused in the values I am today.”

Survivors include her husband of 42 years, Bill Marshall, a retired Baltimore County industrial arts teacher.

A memorial service is being planned.

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