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John Robert ‘Bob’ French, retired English teacher at St. Paul’s School and in Baltimore County, dies

The St. Paul’s School for Boys presents the John Robert French Award for Expository Writing.
The St. Paul’s School for Boys presents the John Robert French Award for Expository Writing.

John Robert “Bob” French, a retired St. Paul’s School for Boys English teacher who later taught in the Baltimore County school system and believed in the value of clear writing, died of congestive heart failure Aug. 24 at his Manchester home. He was 88.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. French grew up on Radnor Avenue in Govans. He graduated from St. Paul’s School’s School for Boys, then located in Mount Washington, in 1950. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Yale University. He then joined the Army and was stationed in Germany.

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After leaving the military he taught English at St. Paul’s until 1962 when he began teaching in the Baltimore County School system. He taught at Towson, Dulaney, Randallstown and Kenwood high schools.

Former Evening Sun sports editor Bill Tanton grew up in Govans with Mr. French and they remained lifelong friends.

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“Bob French and I first became friends in the first grade at Guilford School No. 214, and remained friends for life. At Guilford Bob always got a first honors pin on his report card. Nothing ever changed. He was a true liberal intellectual all his life.

"Years ago, when I was working at The Evening Sun, I wrote a story in the Sunday brown section [The Sunday Sun Magazine, then printed in a sepia tone of ink] about a young woman who had come here from her home in England to teach horseback riding. Her name was Jill Robshaw. Bob and Jill met during that period, fell in love and stayed married until Bob’s death. He was a great friend for many, many years.”

Mr. French took a leave of absence in 1974 to assist his wife, Jill, in managing the Columbia Equestrian Center. He was the center’s business manager. Mr. French later returned to teaching at Howard Community College, from which he retired.

“My father loved literature and films that conveyed a message, that challenged us to question our values and assumptions about the world,” said his son, Jim French. “He believed in civil rights, and during the 1960s, while at Dulaney, took his class of white suburban students to meet with the Black Panthers at their headquarters in East Baltimore."

Paul Brookes, a former student of Mr. French’s from St. Paul’s, said: “To my delight, I found that Mr. French had a special place in his heart for the Class of ’61 and regularly participated in our reunions. By about the time of the 40th reunion, an anonymous alumnus, alarmed by the erosion of the quality of writing found in books, magazines, and — especially — newspapers, shared these thoughts with Mr. French and found that he harbored the same opinions.

"From these conversations came the creation of the John Robert French Award for Expository Writing. This was a resurrection of an award, Excellence in Written Expression, that was presented annually at St. Paul’s several decades earlier. I helped coordinate the logistics between the contest judges, the school, and Mr. French. It was a delightful honor to work with him.”

Charles “Charley” Mitchell, a friend and St. Paul’s alumni relations director, said: "Bob French was concerned about the inability of many students and young people to write clearly and concisely, using correct grammar. He worked with the English faculty at St. Paul’s to craft the guidelines for contests in our lower, middle and upper schools in which students had one hour to write an essay on a specific topic.”

Former students recalled their teacher as a gentleman and teacher who influenced their lives. Mr. Brookes said his classmates often said Mr. French taught us lessons that reached far beyond English composition and literature ... and instilled notions of consideration, respect, integrity, honor, and a gentleman’s proper behavior ... leading discussions in his understated way that ranged far beyond any of our course subject matter. He was a great teacher.”

Mr. French was a lifelong Orioles fan and recalled attending games at the old International League park on East 29th Street at Greenmount Avenue. He was also a cook, gardener and reader.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, who is retired from the Columbia Equestrian Center; sons, James L. French of Baltimore John R. French Jr. of Wellington, Florida, and Anthony W. French of Parkville ; a daughter, Mary J. Hough of Sparks; four grandchildren, Emily H. Conklin, John P. French, Riley D. Hough and Peter F. French; and a great-grandson.

Plans for a nonreligious memorial service are incomplete.

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