Donald E. Setzer, a retired teacher and Howard County Schools principal, dies

Donald E. Setzer liked visiting libraries and was a member of the H.L. Mencken Society.

Donald E. Setzer, a retired Howard County Schools principal, died of cancer Sept. 19 at Gilchrist Center in Columbia. He was 89 and lived in Glenwood.

Born in Baltimore and raised in East Baltimore, Donald Edward Setzer was the son of Harry Setzer, a cabdriver and diner owner, and Rosalie Guthrie, a homemaker.


He was a 1951 graduate of Patterson Park High School and pitched for the baseball team. He once played against Southern High School’s Al Kaline, who went on to play for the Detroit Tigers and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Setzer then enlisted in the Army and trained in radio communications. He was stationed in Japan on Hokkaido and was sent to other locations to set up and maintain radio communication sites.


After leaving the military in 1955, Mr. Setzer earned a degree at what is now Towson University. As a college student, he worked as a reporter for the Cecil Whig and entertained thoughts of going into newspaper work.

“He loved reading and journalism and was an excellent writer. His vocabulary was extraordinary,” said his son, Donald R. Setzer.

He changed his career plans and taught in the Baltimore City Schools system. He became a master teacher, and instructed, assisted and supervised other teachers. He worked at Curtis Bay and Pimlico elementary schools.

“My father was the forever optimist,” said his daughter, Constance Warner. “He was trustworthy and loyal. To him, fairness was paramount. He believed that every person had the right for their story to be told.”

She also said: “One of his kindergarten students told me of how her class was going to watch the film ‘Old Yeller.’ She did not want to see it. It dealt with the death of a beloved dog and she felt it was too sad. Her teacher said she was being uncooperative and could sit at her desk or go to the principal’s office.”

“She went to my father’s office and he told her she should not be made to watch a film she did not want to. She remained with him while he did other work,” his daughter said.

In 1970, Mr. Setzer joined the Howard County Public School System as vice principal at West Friendship Elementary.

He later earned his master’s degree at what is now Loyola University Maryland and dual certification to work with children in elementary through middle school. He was a reading specialist.


He worked closely with previous Howard school superintendents M. Thomas Goedeke and Michael Hickey, with whom he enjoyed playing cards.

Mr. Setzer was subsequently named principal at Rockland Elementary in Ellicott City, Lisbon Elementary in Lisbon and Running Brook Elementary in Columbia.

“My father implemented a very successful leadership style. It was basically for the kids — they came first. He told his teachers, ‘If you’re not here for the students, you are here for the wrong reasons,’” said his son, Donald.

“He was patient, understanding and had a fabulous sense of humor. He had the best one-liners and the best quips,” his son said. “He had an enlightening way of saying things.”

Mr. Setzer retired from the Howard County Schools in 1997 and became a part-time teacher at Towson University, Loyola University Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University.

He liked visiting libraries and perusing their collections.


“We would go to the Hamilton branch of the Pratt Library or the county libraries in Parkville or Hillendale. He also liked visiting the downtown Pratt Library so he could visit the Mencken Room,” his son said.

Mr. Setzer joined the H.L. Mencken Society and read Mencken’s writings, including his autobiographical works.

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Mr. Setzer was a member of Zion Lutheran Church, where he was a member of the congregation’s council and was an eighth grade Sunday school teacher.

After completing Sunday school duties, he took his own children for a sandwich at Jack’s Corned Beef on East Lombard Street and then provided a tour of old Baltimore landmarks. He was fascinated by faded signs painted on the sides of buildings.

On Saturday mornings, he played golf at Clifton Park. He also was a member of Turf Valley Country Club.

He was a devoted grandfather and often escorted his grandsons to the library or the driving range.


“Every outing was an educational adventure,” his son said. “He was a school administrator but he was always a teacher first.”

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Joyce Trumbull, a retired kindergarten teacher; a son, Donald R. Setzer of Nottingham; a daughter, Constance Warner of Cockeysville; a sister, Carolyn Little of Parkville; and four grandsons.

A celebration of life will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Eagle’s Nest Country Club