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Robert L. ‘Bob’ Lamborn, who was headmaster of McDonogh School for two decades and ended its military program, dies

Robert L. “Bob” Lamborn was headmaster at McDonogh from 1952 to 1972. (Courtesy)
Robert L. “Bob” Lamborn was headmaster at McDonogh from 1952 to 1972. (Courtesy)

Robert L. “Bob” Lamborn, who headed McDonogh School for two decades during which time the Owings Mills school ended its military program, was integrated and went coed, died Feb. 11 in his sleep at MacKenzie Place-Fort Collins, an assisted living facility, in Colorado. The former Ellicott City resident was 102.

“Bob was special and he transformed the school,” said Dave J. Farace, who graduated from McDonogh in 1987, and has been head of school since 2019. “And as a leader, he did it with integrity, a powerful intellect, and a deep love of the school, and that really sums up Bob Lamborn.”

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“Bob Lamborn was just a wonderful person,” said Samuel H. Wright, who graduated in 1964 from McDonogh. “I was a scholarship student at McDonogh and Bob went out of his way to make sure that folks on scholarships were treated like everyone else. And if there were issues, he wanted to hear about it, and had a total open-door policy.”

Robert Louis Lamborn, son of Maj. Louis E. “Doc” Lamborn, who was headmaster of McDonogh from 1926 to 1952, and his wife, Florence Jean Wagner Lamborn, a homemaker, was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and moved to the school’s Owings Mills campus in 1926 when his father was named headmaster.

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He attended Friends School from 1924 to 1926, when he entered McDonogh, and completed the Upper School in three years in 1935, which was his junior year. He entered the Johns Hopkins University that year.

Robert L. “Bob” Lamborn was later executive director for the Council for American Private Education. (Courtesy)
Robert L. “Bob” Lamborn was later executive director for the Council for American Private Education. (Courtesy)

Dr. Lamborn was a student at Stanford University from 1935 to 1938 where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. To get certified as a teacher, he attended the University of Maryland, College Park and Johns Hopkins from 1938 to 1939.

He obtained a master’s degree in secondary school administration from Harvard University in 1941, and after teaching in Boston schools briefly, he returned to McDonogh as an English teacher, and then was appointed assistant to the headmaster, and served as head of the upper and middle schools. In 1942, he was elected assistant headmaster by the board of trustees.

In 1943, he enlisted in the Army and graduated from its Ordnance School and Officers Candidate School, and at the time of his discharge in 1946, had attained the rank of lieutenant.

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Dr. Lamborn earned a doctorate in education in personal adjustment and guidance in 1951 from Johns Hopkins. When his father, who had made McDonogh into one of the best-known military schools in the nation, stepped down as headmaster in 1952, he succeeded him.

For the next two decades, Dr. Lamborn presided over sweeping changes that would forever change transform the school from a military model to a civilian one, with its academic focus being on preparing students for college, and creating a lower, middle and upper school with four grades each.

“This reorganization resulted in the formation of one of the first middle schools in the country and paved the way for the national middle school movement,” according to a McDonogh biographical profile of Dr. Lamborn.

Five years after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, the first African American student entered McDonogh. “It was a decision that had to be made,” Mr. Wright said.

“He spent the last 10 years of his career at the school laying and preparing the groundwork for the school to go coed,” said his son, Alan C. Lamborn, of Fort Collins. “He made McDonogh a more inclusive and diverse school.”

In 1971, McDonogh announced that it would end its 98-year-old military program and “all the trappings that go with it,” The Evening Sun reported.

Dr. Lamborn explained in an interview that the decision came about because of a decided anti-military attitude that was sweeping the country because of the Vietnam War and financial pressures on the school.

“Fewer people have been applying,” he told the newspaper. “There are empty beds in the boarding school. And people want boys here for every reason except the military program.”

Said Mr. Farace: “He transformed the school and became a mentor to generations of students, teachers and administrators. We have two themes here, ‘Do the greatest amount of good,’ and ‘Give something more than you take,’ and Bob focused on those two themes.”

“A former headmaster liked to say had these changes not come about, McDonogh today would be a housing development,” his son said.

Said Mr. Wright, now a McDonogh trustee: “Had Bob not used his time and made these very dramatic steps the school simply would not exist today. All the credit for the future of the school and doing what he did goes to Bob.”

Dr. Lamborn, who insisted people and students call him Bob, liked to quote a favorite quotation that is emblematic of the life he lived: “A man is the difference he makes.”

After serving as headmaster until 1972 and retiring from McDonogh the next year, Dr. Lamborn became the executive director for the Council for American Private Education, a coalition of 15 national organizations serving about 15,000 private schools that enrolled nearly 4.2 million students.

Dr. Lamborn left CAPE in 1980, and for the next two years, worked as a consultant on educational administration specializing in private schools. He was a visiting lecturer in the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education from 1982 to 1986.

“He loves to say that ‘retirement was your last chance to get in shape,’ so with that he began riding a bicycle. He hadn’t ridden a bicycle since he was a kid,” his son said.

Along with his second wife, the former Barbara Blaes Kessler, whom he married in 1982, the couple embarked in 1984 on a biking adventure they dubbed “Lamborn & Lamborn,” including pedaling cross-country from Los Angeles to Boston when he was 74.

The couple rode a tandem bike and from 1984 to 2006 had cycled 48,000 miles in 42 states, and in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Mexico, St. Thomas, Scotland, The Netherlands and Wales.

Dr. Lamborn boasted in his resume that they rode “124 miles a day, 634 in a week, 2,425 in a month, and 4,758 in a year,” and stopped riding only after his wife came down with painful osteoporosis.

In addition to riding, he became a speaker, writer, instructor, adviser, consultant, mapmaker and event planner for the bicycling fraternity. He and his wife, who died in 2015, designed a 2,500-mile route on the Delmarva Peninsula called “The Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail.”

From 1993 to 2006, Dr. Lamborn launched a second career as a model and worked as an extra in movies and TV shows. In 2015, he moved to Fort Collins.

In honor of his years of hard work and devotion to McDonogh, the school renamed the former Woods Road on its campus to Bob Lamborn Road.

Dr. Lamborn will return to his beloved McDonogh in death.

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“When things get better, we’re going to have a celebration of his life at McDonogh,” Mr. Farace said. “Bob will be cremated and his cremains will be placed in a special place in the Tagart Memorial Chapel.”

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In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Kathleen R. Lamborn of Ashland, Oregon; two stepsons, Peter Blaes of Bethesda and Stephen Blaes of Ellicott City; a stepdaughter, Lise Blaes of Columbia; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, Jeffrey B. “Jeff” Lamborn, died in 2017. An earlier marriage to the former Dorothy Belle Rundle ended in divorce.

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