Donna Lee Young’s thirst for knowledge could best be described as voracious. Consider this memory from her daughter.
“We all still tell the story of how my brother was driving down a road, and my mother screamed, ‘Stop the car!’ ” Nancy Young recalled. “He thought there was an accident. She had found a marsh, and she was like, ‘Look at this beauty!’ She got her grandchildren out and started a lesson just because she saw a teaching opportunity. My mother was a teacher no matter where she went and no matter who she was with.”
Mrs. Young, a biology and horticulture teacher in Baltimore County public high schools for almost 40 years and an advocate for children, died Aug. 2 at the Gilchrist Center in Towson of complications from sepsis. She was 86.
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Lee Alban, who taught with Mrs. Young at Loch Raven High School for many years, said she was one of the best-liked teachers in the building.
“She was really enthusiastic about what she did and was somehow able to transfer the enthusiasm she had to the kids so that they were enthusiastic, too,” he said. “They would do extra things to raise money for the horticulture program because it wasn’t always fully funded by the project. Outside of class time, they would sell doughnuts at school events and so forth. The kids were just as enthusiastic about raising money and keeping that program going as much as she was.”
The former Donna Nebinger was the eldest of four children born to Richard Wayne Nebinger, a banker and draftsman, and the former Dorothy Albert, a homemaker. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she and the rest of the family moved to Baltimore so that Mr. Nebinger could work as a draftsman in the shipyards at Sparrows Point.
Mrs. Young said her father was the biggest influence in her life.
“The thing I most credit my dad for was that I could do and be anything that I wanted to at a time when girls were not encouraged to do things that women were not supposed to do,” Mrs. Young told her daughter, who is vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Dad taught me to sew, garden, not throw like a girl, use tools, how to fix things, and how to do things well.”
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After graduating from Dundalk High School in 1952, Mrs. Young became the first of her siblings to go to college, enrolling at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was one of only a few women to major in the field of science, earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a minor in theater in 1956.
She then married Harry Young in Baltimore.
Shortly after, Mrs. Young was hired as a teacher by the Baltimore County public school system, but was assigned to an elementary school. That did not sit well with her.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve got it wrong. I won’t be working with you. I didn’t sit in all those classes with boys to teach the water cycle to first graders,’ ” her daughter said from her home in Catonsville. “The next day, they called her back and assigned her to teach advanced biology in the high school. So she became one of the first women in that department, and she was always incredibly proud of that.”
Mr. Alban became acquainted with Mrs. Young when he transferred from Kenwood High School to Loch Raven in 1972. A biology teacher, Mr. Alban said Mrs. Young developed a curriculum for a horticulture course that exploded in popularity.
“She had a terrific relationship with the kids,” he said. “She really had a great personality, and they liked her a lot, and she involved them a lot. With her experience in gardening and biology, she came up with a lot of activities for the kids to do. They were growing things and measuring things, just a lot of hands-on activities that made the classes a lot of fun.”
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Ms. Young said her mother treasured her career so much that she planned to have children in May or June so that maternity leave would not be an obstacle. (Nancy Young was born in May 1958, and her brother, Wayne, was born in June a year later.)
Ms. Young said her mother turned down opportunities to become a department chair or principal because she valued daily interaction with her students.
“She always said that she chose to teach the highest-level students, the students taking pre-college biology and advanced biology, because they challenged her to keep learning and to keep up with them,” she said. “And she always wanted to teach the children that struggled because they challenged her in a very different way to keep them motivated and interested in learning. She knew that for every person, what they learned — whether it was for employment or just whether it improved their lives — was really critical. She loved her kids.”
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Ms. Young said even after her mother retired from Loch Raven in 1994, she volunteered at Battle Grove Elementary School. Her mother told her about one student who frequently got into trouble.
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“My mother just sort of marched in and said, ‘If he was in a different school, we’d recognize him as gifted. This child is not bad — he’s bored,’” she said. “And they moved him to the advanced classes, and he began to blossom. So I think my mother saw herself as a champion for children.”
Despite later living in Baldwin, Mrs. Young assisted her husband at the Dundalk Teen Center, which they established, worked as an election judge, served as vice president of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, and volunteered at the YMCA in Dundalk and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore — raising chimps, helping develop the polar bear exhibit, and working on the poinsettia program at the latter.
Carol Alban, Mr. Alban’s wife, said she marveled at Mrs. Young’s capacity to travel, garden, read, and host dinner parties without missing a beat.
“I don’t know how she had enough time to even sleep at night for the amount of work and energy and vibrancy that she had in her life,” Mrs. Alban said. “I’m 72, and I would come home and just be tired from the amount of energy that Donna had always exuded.”
On May 13, 2018 — Mother’s Day — the UMBC Scene Shop inside the Performing Arts and Humanities Building was named for Mrs. Young.
Mrs. Young was cremated. A memorial service is being planned.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Young is survived by a son, Wayne E. Young of Pylesville; two sisters, Janet Maynard and Debra Zimmerman, both of North Point; three grandchildren; and one great-grandson.