John C. Roemer III, a retired teacher and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, died Thursday of dementia at Woodholme Gardens in Pikesville. He was 82 and lived in Parkton.
“John was an extraordinary educator who inspired generations of students,” said Dan Paradis, head of the Park School, where Mr. Roemer taught for many years. “To this day, I encounter alumni who cite his civil liberties course — and just having known John — as profound influences on their lives.”
Born in Baltimore and raised in Rodgers Forge, he was the son of John C. Roemer Jr., a restaurant manager, and his wife, Ruth Davis, a homemaker.
Mr. Roemer was a 1956 graduate of Towson High School and described himself at that time as a “confirmed antediluvian, right-wing Republican.”
He studied history at Princeton University and remained “a campus conservative, fighting off the campus pinks.”
In a class taught by historian Eric Frederick Goldman, Mr. Roemer and a group of students were allowed to skip the final exam if they agreed to a different assignment — rewriting the U.S. Constitution.
Mr. Roemer was put in charge of writing a new Bill of Rights. “I came back and added the right to medical care, the right to a job,” he said in a 2003 Baltimore Sun article.
“My Republican colleagues said, `Are you out of your mind?’ ”
The Sun’s article also said, “The conversion of John Charles [Roemer] III from the right to the left became complete while researching the New Deal for his senior thesis.”
“I had an animus toward the New Deal. I thought it was a watered-down version of authoritarian socialism,” Mr. Roemer said. [The New Dealers] were trying to help people who couldn’t help themselves. At that point I realized: `You know what, John? You’re actually a confirmed liberal.’ I’ve been a confirmed liberal ever since.”
After Princeton he earned a master’s degree in teaching and returned to Baltimore, where he joined the Congress of Racial Equality. He was soon named vice president of the Baltimore chapter of CORE, which was picketing the restaurant operated by his father for refusing to serve Blacks.
“I really took the stuff about American values seriously,” he said in 2003 and acknowledged that the protests against Hutzler’s, where his father managed restaurants, prompted “some interesting discussions” in the Roemer household.
His son, John C. Roemer IV, described his father as “a brilliant strategist in his efforts in the civil rights movement. He figured out the most sensitive pressure points to attack institutional racism, which often meant hitting them in the pocketbook or publicly shaming them. These included the Gwynn Oak Park amusement park, Ocean City’s restrictions on Blacks swimming in the ocean, and using the Baltimore Colts management to desegregate Carroll County restaurants and hotels.”
“He was not just a cerebral character,” his son said. “A [friend] in the Gwynn Oak Park integration efforts called him a ‘battering ram for justice,’ belying his spectacled, slight presence.”
He began his teaching career in the Carroll County Public School system, where he caused a controversy for teaching the Bill of Rights.
Mr. Roemer taught at Friends School from 1962 to 1970.
He was named executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and served from 1970 to 1979 and again from 1981 to 1984.
“My father’s willingness to fight for the defenseless was evident when he was a boy,” his son said. “When an adult neighbor in Rogers Forge kicked his puppy, my dad grabbed a baseball bat and went after the guy.
“My dad wove his interests into an amazing life because he was charismatic, articulate, and active. You wanted to go along for the ride. He was generous, amiable, optimistic, and worked tirelessly,” his son said.
An avid runner and past president of the Baltimore Road Runners Club, he set up and managed the Hess Running Center in Towson from 1979 to 1981. He also oversaw a Harborplace store for the Hess firm. He ran 60 miles a week for more than four decades and once rode his bike to the Boston Marathon.
“He ran from the end point of the Boston Marathon to its start; then he ran in the official race,” his son said.
After heading the Maryland ACLU, Mr. Roemer decided to return to teaching and sought a post at the Park School.
“But there were no open positions in the history department, so he became a librarian, and that’s where his 27 years at The Park School began,” said Mr. Paradis, the Park School head.
“If you knew John Roemer, even for one day, you knew everything about him because he told you immediately who he was,” said Susan Weintraub, the school’s former director of library services. “John did nothing by halves.”
“He was a highly empathetic individual,” she said. “John was a master teacher. He drew upon his vast catalog of stories from real life; his ability to get to the moral core of every impossible issue, asking infuriating questions that seemed to have no answers; and the patience with kids to navigate their objections and outrage until they learned in the end that it’s possible to determine right from wrong. And that it’s OK to say that something is wrong.”
“John was one of the rare teachers who didn’t tell you what to think but how to think,” said Ben Jacobs, a former Park School student, a New York Magazine freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C. “He challenged you how to approach topics and how to think about things in a more rigorous manner. He had no tolerance for lazy arguments.”
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His son said Mr. Roemer was a charismatic storyteller and a voracious reader.
“He seemed to know a lot about every subject. He told me he declined a scholarship for a Ph.D. at Harvard, stopping after a master’s, because he figured he’d have more impact teaching high school students instead of college kids,” his son said.
He lobbied for the creation of the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
“He loved the outdoors,” his son said. “Virtually all of our family photos were taken in the woods. We moved to a northern Baltimore County farm in 1962 and moved adjacent to the Prettyboy Reservoir in 1992.”
His son also said, “He was a pacifist who assembled one of the finest Smith & Wesson handgun collections in the United States, and often brought his suburban, private school students to his shooting range to teach them how to handle guns.”
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 62 years, Mary Lambros, a homemaker and co-worker at Hess shoes; a daughter, Lisa Marie Roemer of Felton, Pennsylvania; and two sisters, Joan Taylor of Streett and Kimberly Pitkanen of Sterling, Virginia.
A celebration of life is being planned.