By By Frederick N. Rasmussen and The Baltimore Sun
Aug 25, 2014 at 3:00 AM
Cordelia D. Oliver, a retired Baltimore public schools educator who was one of the first African-American docents at the Baltimore Museum of Art, died Aug. 4 at Gilchrist Hospice care in Towson of complications from a stroke. She was 92.
"Cordelia was a wonderful person, and if anyone met her, they were instantly drawn to her because of her personality," said Camay Calloway Murphy of Baltimore, former executive director of the Eubie Blake Cultural Center and onetime Baltimore school board member.
The daughter of Thomas Daniels Sr., a longshoreman, and Pauline Banks Daniels, a seamstress, Cordelia Daniels was born in Baltimore and raised on the now-gone Watts Street in Northwest Baltimore.
After graduating in 1938 from Frederick Douglass High School with honors, Mrs. Oliver earned a bachelor's degree in 1942 from what was then Coppin Teachers College, where she was class salutatorian.
A first-grade teacher, she began her career in 1942 at the old No. 52 elementary school and later joined the faculty of the Daniel Murray School in East Baltimore.
During World War II, Mrs. Oliver was a charter member of The Pals, a women's organization that was founded in 1943 by a small group of young African-American women who came together to support each other while their husbands were serving with the military all over the world.
They also organized community fundraising events that supported Provident Hospital and many other organizations throughout the city. They held their last event in 2012.
When black students were not allowed to attend graduate school in Maryland during the era of segregation, Mrs. Oliver traveled to New York City on weekends and during summers to study for a master's degree, which she obtained from New York University.
She also began studying for her Ph.D. at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"She discontinued her studies because spending summers with family became a priority after traveling to the North for academics studies for so many years," said her daughter, Sandra Oliver Heningburg of Baltimore
Mrs. Oliver worked for many years as a demonstration and practice teacher before she was promoted to reading coordinator in the Baltimore City Public Schools' central office.
"She preferred growing young minds, and returned to the first-grade classroom," her daughter said.
Mrs. Oliver retired from Margaret Brent School in Charles Village in 1974.
After retiring, she embarked on a second career as a volunteer at the University of Maryland Medical Center as an assistant in its gift shop and working with the Candy Stripers, young student volunteers.
During her years in New York pursuing her master's degree, Mrs. Oliver explored the city's various art museums and galleries, and "spent her non-study time developing her love of art," which began when she was a child, her daughter said.
A friend invited Mrs. Oliver to attend a docent luncheon at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and she became interested in becoming a docent.
In 1980, she applied and was selected to attend the museum's one-year docent training program, which fulfilled a lifelong dream, and for the next 15 years was a highly regarded and much-sought-after docent.
Mrs. Oliver became an expert in the works of the Impressionist painters and contemporary artists. Many of her talks focused on "Parts of Art," that addressed color, line, shape, pattern, space and texture.
One of the highlights of her tenure at the BMA was meeting Pierre and Paul Matisse, son and grandson of Henri Matisse, who was one of her favorite artists.
Because of her years in education, it was only natural that Mrs. Oliver gravitated toward children and loved "opening their eyes and minds to how a canvas speaks to you," her daughter said.
Mrs. Oliver particularly enjoyed taking elementary students on museum tours.
"Cordelia likes to conduct an 'animal' tour for the young children, pointing out the elements of art in paintings containing animals, sculptures of animals, furniture with claw feet, pottery with animals designs, and so forth," according to a 1980s profile of Ms. Oliver in the Baltimore Times.
She also enjoyed the in-depth preparation she was required to do before giving a tour.
"That," she said in the interview, "I never get enough of."
"We recognized early on that we both had an interest in art and were interested in getting others interested in art," said Ms. Murphy. "We were really quite simpatico. And whatever I did, she was always in the audience to support me."
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The longtime Bolton Hill resident was also the first African-American to serve on the historic Mount Vernon community's Christmas Holly Tour.
A lover of both jazz and classical music, for more than 30 years she was a subscriber and benefactor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She also was a supporter of the OrchKids, an after-school program for elementary school students established by BSO music director Marin Alsop.
Mrs. Oliver was a member for 40 years of the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, where she became a church leader. She was a member of the Susanna Wesley Circle, served as a lay leader, and was a member of the church's strategic planning team.
Her husband of 63 years, William Otis Oliver, who had played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Maryland Department of Employment Security's Job Bank, died in 2004
A celebration of life service will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 13 at her church, 10 E. Mount Vernon Place.