John S. Ward, first African American assistant superintendent of Baltimore County public schools, dies

John S. Ward oversaw the physical facilities of Baltimore County Public Schools.
John S. Ward oversaw the physical facilities of Baltimore County Public Schools. (Handout)

John S. Ward, a seasoned Baltimore public schools educator who later became the first African American assistant superintendent of Baltimore County public schools, died May 21 from complications of a brain tumor at Sinai Hospital. The Upper Park Heights Avenue resident was 94.

“John was a legend in his time,” said former superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, who headed Baltimore County public schools for 16 years before retiring in 1992. “He instantly became a role model for our African American teachers and students, and played a major leadership role in developing our diversity programs.”


John Sortorius Ward, son of John Quincy Ward, a merchant seaman and construction worker, and his wife, Lucy Litte Ward, a cook, was born in Baltimore and raised on Mount Street in West Baltimore.

After graduating in 1944 from Frederick Douglass High School, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and served as a staff sergeant with the 810th Engineering Aviation Battalion in Guam, the Marshall Islands, Saipan, the Philippines and Okinawa.


When the war ended, Mr. Ward joined the Post Office as a postal worker, and while there met Francis “Freddie” Crisp, a temporary worker, who encouraged him to enroll at what was then Morgan State College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 in history and geography.

In 1950, he married Ms. Crisp, who later became a Baltimore public schools librarian.

From the mid-1930s until 1957 when the program ended, African American teachers desiring to pursue graduate studies were excluded from attending the University of Maryland, College Park because of segregation. Instead, on weekends and during summers they boarded trains for such institutions as New York University, Columbia University, Oberlin College and the University of Chicago, where Maryland taxpayers paid their tuition.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Ward applied for one of the scholarships but was told the program was being terminated. Years later, he enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, from which he obtained a master’s degree in 1971, “but it was not a pleasant experience,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2004.

“In fact,” he said, “I never went back to the university after I graduated. ... Somehow the outrage of being rejected all those years burned deeply into me. They were so damn hurtful.”

Mr. Ward began his career in city public schools in 1952, teaching history and geography at Tench Tilghman Elementary School, and from 1956 to 1959 at Frederick Douglass High School, where he taught history.

In 1959, he was promoted to history department head at Booker T. Washington Junior High School. In 1961 he was named special assistant at Lombard Junior High School.

Mr. Ward was vice principal at Edmondson High School from 1964 until 1969, when he was appointed principal of Lake Clifton High School. In 1971, he became director of secondary schools for Baltimore City.

Joshua R. Wheeler, Baltimore County public schools superintendent from 1970 to 1976, won praise from educators across Maryland for recruiting black teachers and became the first superintendent in the country to have an African American administrator on his staff when he appointed Mr. Ward in 1971.

“I was an area assistant superintendent at the time, and we were in a staff meeting when Josh said, ‘We need a top staff member who is an African American,’ ” recalled Dr. Dubel, a Glen Arm resident. “When I became superintendent in 1976, I moved him from assistant to associate superintendent and he became a major voice on the staff.”

One of Mr. Ward’s responsibilities was overseeing the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observances in county schools.

“John was the leader in that and made sure every school had an elaborate assembly,” Dr. Dubel said.


As associate superintendent, Mr. Ward was in charge of physical facilities and was also principal adviser to the Baltimore County Board of Education relating to facilities, including capital and architectural planning as well as building construction, plant operations and maintenance, site acquisition and property records.

“We had a roofing problem whereby kids were sitting in classrooms with leaky roofs. This was in 1976,” Dr. Dubel said. “We put in a capital program bond issue which John handled, and within two years all of the roofs on county school buildings had been repaired.”

As birthrate declined dramatically nationwide in the 1970s and early 1980s, the need arose to close 23 older county schools, said Dr. Dubel, who once again turned to Mr. Ward to handle a thorny and emotional issue.

“Naturally, this wasn’t accomplished without some controversy. Families were used to sending their children to their neighborhood school. This saved $25 million in our budget and instead we put this money into instruction, added teachers and reduced class size," recalled Dr. Dubel.

“I credit a great deal of this to John. It took courage and was a tough process. John went to PTA meetings to explain the process. He was our chief salesman. I like to say that John was a very quiet and effective person," Dr. Dubel said.

"He wore well with people and had a great relationship with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who gave him a luncheon when he retired,” he said.

When Dr. Dubel unveiled his Challenges of Excellence program, Mr. Ward rallied to it. “He was a great supporter because he had been director of secondary schools in the city. He never lost his appetite for academic excellence,” he said.

Mr. Ward left county schools in 1985 when Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, a position he held for several years. From 1992 to 1993, he served as a member of the city’s Board of Education.

The longtime resident of the Strathmore Tower condominiums served as a board member of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., Maryland State Airport Board, Mount Washington Improvement Association, Baltimore Urban League and Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.

Mr. Ward was also a longtime member of the Club of Baltimore, an elite African American investment club that was founded in 1931 during the depths of the Great Depression by blacks who were barred because of segregation from doing business with the city’s prominent banks and investment houses. He was a 72-year member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and a member of Committee X71.

He and his wife had cruised all over the world, and his favorite vacation destination was Bermuda. He was an inveterate collector of Murano glass fish.

For 66 years he was an active communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on West Lafayette Avenue.

In addition to his wife of 70 years, Mr. Ward is survived by two daughters, Deborah L. Gray of Mount Washington and Jo-Ann L. Pully of Paget, Bermuda; three grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.


Plans for a memorial service at his church are incomplete.

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