Francis G. “Gil” French, the retired head of the Baltimore City College mathematics department and a veteran member of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, died of COVID-19 complications Jan. 3 at Roland Park Place. The former resident of Guilford Avenue in Charles Village was 91.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Old Harford Road in Hamilton, he was the son of Samuel James French Jr., a plumbing supply salesman and Sara “Sadie” Doyle, the St. Dominic Church organist. He was a 1948 City College graduate. He played the violin in the school orchestra.
During the Korean War, Mr. French served in the Army and was stationed in Germany as a documents clerk. He earned a degree at what is now Towson University and later received a master’s degree from Bowdoin College.
He met his future wife, Janice “Jan” Burdge, while she was a student teacher at Westport Elementary School.
Mr. French joined the faculty at City College and later headed its mathematics department. During this time Goucher College donated used computers to the city school system, and Mr. French went on to head the school system’s Office of Instructional Computing, working from an office in the Old Goucher neighborhood. He also worked summers as a mathematics curriculum supervisor for junior high and high schools.
“He was knowledgeable, mild mannered and was especially conciliatory toward helping new teachers. He had a strong understanding of the human nature of teachers,” said Charles B. Kelly, a retired science and math teacher and school administrator. “He assisted teachers [with keeping] up their math credentials to be recertified. He considered math a prime subject that everyone should understand. To him, it was all about logic.”
Friends recalled Mr. French’s personality.
‘He was an old fashioned man, gentle, courteous and gracious,” said Carol Huppert. “When he had a party, he wrote us invitations in the form of poetry.”
A 1996 Baltimore Sun article said, “Gil French is a man who sings for joy. All it takes is a few EEEs, OOOs and UUUMMMMMs, and he’s limbered up and ready to go. Sometimes in his car. Sometimes in his home office. Definitely under his breath. Most important to him, however, is the time he spends singing with his choir.”
The article noted Mr. French, a tenor, had been singing with the Handel Choir for 39 years at the time and that little came between him and his rehearsals.
“Singing is a tremendous release, a tremendous joy,” he said in 1996. “There’s a thrill, a joy in singing difficult music. I wouldn’t miss choir rehearsal for anything.”
The choir weathered a period of possible bankruptcy.
“To save themselves, members of the Handel Choir participated in a talent show held at the Hippodrome Theatre. The group’s entry, of course, was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s ‘Messiah,’” The Sun article said. “Each entry was broadcast over the radio; listeners mailed in their votes for best performance.”
“‘Of course, since our choir had a lot of members with families, we could flood the station, but we were clearly the best act,’” Mr. French recalled.
His musical ensemble took home a prize of $1,000.
“It may well be one of the most outrageous things we’ve ever done, but back then we were serious about it: any port in a storm,” said Mr. French. “Handel pulled us through.”
He later sang with Bach in Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins Chorus. He continued to play the violin for pleasure.
Mr. French, who was a member of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1970. He had been a close ally of former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who died last year.
Mr. French served several terms as president of the Charles Village Civic Association.
The Morning Sun
Friends recalled that he ran public monthly meetings in a calm manner while handling controversies. He helped defeat a plan to widen Calvert Street in the 1970s.
He and his wife hosted an annual neighborhood winter party at their home. In February 2010, when a heavy snowfall paralyzed the city, they continued with their plans.
“Undiscouraged by weather predictions, [the couple] cooked all week. He made a pot of potato leek soup,” said a Sun article.
“Then came the storm. Early Saturday, Gil French, 79, shoveled two sets of steps and a path to the door. Throughout the day, neighbors lent a hand, reshoveling the path so guests could reach the home, which sits on a terrace above the street,” the article said.
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, a former Barclay Elementary School kindergarten teacher; two daughters, Dr. Audrey French of Evanston, Illinois, and Arlene Minkiewicz of Merchantville, New Jersey; a son, Stephen Sawin of New Haven, Connecticut; a brother, Gerald French of Fort Myers, Florida; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Plans for a life celebration are pending.