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George M. Sherman, a business executive who supported educational opportunities for the underprivileged, dies

George M. Sherman was executive vice president at Black & Decker, where he headed the power tools group.
George M. Sherman was executive vice president at Black & Decker, where he headed the power tools group. (Zack Smith)

In his 40s, George M. Sherman developed a love for scuba diving, biking and skiing. But even before then, there was a certain appeal about driving an MGB convertible and obtaining a pilot’s license for single-engine aircraft.

“He just always liked to travel fast with the wind in his hair, and I think flying a Cessna was part of that,” his eldest son, Jonathan Sherman, said. “I can remember when I was 5 or 6 flying around with him all over Kentucky just checking things out.”

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Mr. Sherman, who was a top executive at Black & Decker in Baltimore and the Danaher Corp. in Washington, D.C., died Tuesday at his home in Camden, Maine, due to complications from a brain injury suffered while exercising. He was 80.

Mr. Sherman and his wife, Betsy, were also major philanthropists in Baltimore, partnering with UMBC to fund the Sherman STEM Teachers Scholars Program and paying particular attention to nonprofit organizations such as the Judy Centers, Family Tree and the Center for Urban Families that emphasized educational opportunities for the underprivileged ranging from prekindergarten to college-aged students.

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“He taught us how to live our lives,” said Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC who said he had known Mr. Sherman for about 25 years. “He taught us how to be passionate about what we do and how to care about the big issues in our society. He was masterful as a businessman, and in the same sentence, he was exemplary in his attitude and his approach to using his wisdom and his wealth to change lives.”

Born in Manhattan, Mr. Sherman was the elder of two children raised by the former Fredericka Hand, an office manager, and Joseph Sherman, a customs agent. At 13, Mr. Sherman began delivering newspapers, but later found greater financial reward challenging patrons of pool halls to games of billiards.

“He happened to be pretty good at it,” his son said from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “So he would go into pool halls and hustle up some games, and he made enough money to start up a little concrete company, which turned into his construction company, and he used that money to pay his way through college.”

As lucrative as pool hustling may have been, Mr. Sherman enrolled at Long Island University, where he landed on the dean’s list and graduated with a bachelor’s in engineering in 1963.

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“His mother was always a big believer in education, and she wholly impressed upon him how important education was,” Mr. Sherman said. “So he always stayed straight and true on the school front.”

A year later, Mr. Sherman was drafted into the U.S. Army and worked in the military branch’s engineering office. After getting discharged in 1966 at the rank of sergeant, he joined General Electric Co. in Massachusetts as a management trainee and later met the former Betsy Rae Bicknell, an early childhood education major at Tufts University, on a blind date arranged by Ms. Bicknell’s roommate’s fiance.

“They just hit it off smashingly, and she swept him off his feet,” their son said. “They had their first date, and then he went and visited her every weekend until they eloped [in November after a six-week courtship].”

The newlywed couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky, a year later where Mr. Sherman continued working for GE and earned a master’s in business administration at the University of Louisville in 1970. Mr. and Mrs. Sherman also welcomed three sons — Jonathan in 1970, David in 1972 and Michael in 1975.

The family moved to Monroe, Connecticut, in 1976 and then Houston in 1979 where Mr. Sherman became president of Weed Eater and the family added another baby boy in Matthew in 1980.

After moving to the SKIL Corp. in Northbrook, Illinois, in 1980 to become president, Mr. Sherman joined Black & Decker in 1982 as vice president of the U.S. power tools group. Four years later, the family moved to Baltimore, and Mr. Sherman was promoted to executive vice president and president of the power tools group.

Mr. Sherman’s time at Black & Decker involved extensive travel, especially to Asia, where he developed a fondness for the culture and food of Japan. He also enjoyed finding unusual delicacies and bringing them back to his family.

“He would come back with chocolate-covered ants and bees and all sorts of crazy things that we couldn’t believe when we were kids,” Mr. Sherman said. “But it was a very cool thing to bring to school.”

A student of Japanese business techniques, Mr. Sherman shifted in 1990 to CEO of Danaher, where he introduced the concept of “kaizen,” a Japanese-based philosophy that emphasizes continuous improvement among all functions and employees — from the CEO to the entry-level workers.

Mrs. Sherman was a vigorous proponent of education for children of families from challenging backgrounds, and she and her husband established the Sherman Family Foundation to support organizations that mirrored their priorities.

Dr. Hrabowski said the Shermans took a proactive approach to partnering with UMBC, familiarizing themselves with the faculty and staff of the Sherman STEM Teachers Scholars Program and meeting every student.

“They wanted the scholars to know that they believed in them, and they wanted them to know that they are human beings,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “When people hear about wealthy people giving, it’s so easy to think they are different from regular people. But George and Betsy can meet anyone. They went with us to the schools, they met the children, they met the teachers in the schools, they met the principals. The one response I have always gotten from people about them is, ‘They’re such decent human beings.’”

Shale D. Stiller, an attorney and neighbor of the Sherman family in the Roland Park community, said in the more than 15 years he knew Mr. Sherman, the latter always made himself available to assist the homeowners association.

“When the neighborhood needed help, you could call up George, and he would give you his ideas, and in most cases, nobody had ever thought of those ideas,” Mr. Stiller said. “He was that unique of an individual.”

As influential as the Shermans were, they shied away from the public spotlight, according to Dr. Hrabowski.

“They were never interested in getting credit,” he said. “I had to really ask them to allow us to use the Sherman name, and the reason I said was when people saw that name, they knew that George was a good businessman and that the two of them believed in supporting causes that showed results. They agreed to do it out of great humility.”

While chairing the board of directors at the Campbell Soup Co. from 2001 to 2004 and the Rexnord Corp. from 2002 to 2015, Mr. Sherman found his nirvana at the shore, particularly the family’s home in Bethany Beach, Delaware, called “The Lion in the Sun.”

“It was the one place where he was prone to relax,” his son said. “He would sit out on the beach with a book, fall asleep in about two minutes, wake up sweaty and jump in the water, get out and read for another five minutes, and go back to sleep. It was one of the few times you ever saw him slow down.”

A memorial for Mr. Sherman is tentatively planned for October at UMBC.

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In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Sherman is survived by three more sons, David Sherman of Baltimore, Michael Sherman of Los Angeles, and Matthew Sherman of Brooklyn, New York, one sister, Rona Sherman of Albany, New York, and five grandchildren.

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