Kenneth L. Greif, who abandoned a legal career for the world of academia and in doing so became a longtime beloved Park School English teacher, died Aug. 20 at his Guilford home of multiple organ failure. He was 83.
“He was endlessly enthusiastic and his classroom went well beyond the walls of Park School,” said Kathy Shapiro, who studied Shakespeare and romantic poetry with Mr. Greif. “He was also a lifelong student who knew history, theater and classical music.”
In a memo to Park School staff, headmaster Dan Paradis described Mr. Greif as a “fierce intellect, longtime master teacher, trusted mentor and adviser, valued friend, generous spirit, film cognoscente and sports aficionado.”
Kenneth Lee Greif, the son of Lee David Greif, an executive with the L. Greif & Bros. Inc., a clothing manufacturer, and his wife, Harriet Katz, a volunteer and philanthropist. He was also a grandson of Jacob Epstein, philanthropist, and founder of the Baltimore Bargain House, a mail-order wholesale business.
He was born in Baltimore and lived in Pikesville until moving to New York City, where he graduated in 1953 from the Trinity School.
Mr. Greif earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957 from Brown University and his law degree in 1961 from the University of Virginia School of Law. In 1968, he obtained a master’s degree in teaching from the Johns Hopkins University.
He practiced law for several years at Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman before joining the Park School faculty in 1963.
“I got to know Kenny after he graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law because he had the office next to mine at Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, and we were very anxious to have him because he was a very bright guy,” said Shale D. Stiller, a partner at DLP Piper LLP.
“But he wanted to teach and stayed with the law firm about three years. He wanted to teach literature to students,” said Mr. Stiller, a North Roland Park resident. “He was the quintessential teacher, and he knew how to get kids interested. Kenny opened up vistas of literature to them where there are so many good ideas. Thousands of kids just adored him."
The world of teaching students brought Mr. Greif the satisfaction that he failed to find practicing law.
“He never took a salary during his time at Park,” Mr. Stiller said. "He once told me, ‘Why should I take money for doing something that gives me great joy. How can I get paid for that?’ ”
He had served as English department chair and advised the school’s literary journal, Parkpourri. According to Mr. Paradis’ memo, his favorite courses to teach were “Romantic Poetry, 19th Century English, American Fiction, Modern English Novel, Russian Literature. And, of course, Shakespeare.”
Ms. Shapiro, a Pikesville resident, theater producer and 1975 Park graduate, recalled Mr. Greif as being an exacting teacher.
“He set the bar high and expected his students to own the material. When he gave a test on Shakespeare, you had to fill in the blanks of the speeches; some were famous and others were obscure. He immersed you in the beauty of the language of Shakespeare’s world,” Ms. Shapiro said.
“His classes were always adventures. Every student in his class felt that way because of him and why it was so important to engage with literature.”
Other duties outside the classroom included writing “innumerable college recommendations, and [guiding] many seniors through the college application and essay process,” Mr. Paradis wrote. “He staged and recited poetry. He spent countless hours after school attending games, having conversations with students in the hallway, immersing himself in thoughts and ideas, and counterpoints that swirled around him.”
Ms. Shapiro said Mr. Greif showed great “personal generosity” toward his students.
“We had classmates who had personal difficulties at home and he would meet with them on the side and give them notes so they could stay up with their class and so they would not miss a thing,” she said. “He gave them support in difficult times.”
There was another side to Mr. Greif’s teaching that extended to his students long after they graduated from Park.
When the husband of a former student, who lived in New York City, left after a few months of marriage, she turned to Mr. Greif for help.
“Kenny brought her a sense of peace and calm," Mr. Stiller said. “He’d spend hours speaking to these kids about their problems long after they had graduated from Park School. He felt he had a moral obligation to enhance the quality of their lives and help them with their difficulties."
Said Ms. Shapiro: “He kept up with his students and personally cared about your happiness, your accomplishments, your wishes, and he made them seem as if they were his own.
“He felt your joys and he felt your sorrows as if they were his own. He was a very compassionate man with a genuine concern and that was a real gift. Celebrating your life is what mattered to him. He was a father to many and not a man of the material world. He loved people and he loved ideas."
He retired from Park in 1997.
Mr. Greif maintained a second home in Washington, Connecticut, where he taught English from 2002 to 2004 at The Gunnery, a private school also in Washington.
He was a diehard fan of the Orioles and of baseball in general.
“Up until about 10 years ago, he could recite which teams were in the World Series going all the way back to the 1900s, and he did this from memory," Mr. Stiller said. "He also had season tickets to the Orioles and would go to 60 games.”
In addition to reading and watching classic Hollywood films from the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Greif was a Ravens fan.
It was also at Park that he met and fell in love with the former Manya Kelly Sachs, the school’s librarian, whom he married in 1976. She died last year.