Rolanda Handy Rawlings, a retired branch chief at the Office of Personnel Management who was among the first African American students to graduate from the old Eastern High School, died from complications of vascular dementia on Oct. 15 at the Villa at Campfield in Gwynn Oak. She was 79.
Born in Baltimore at the old Provident Hospital, she was the daughter of Thelma Roane Handy, a Postal Service worker, and Roland Handy Sr., a city public schools engineer. She lived with her family on Mosher and Division Streets and Clifton Avenue.
“My mother was raised in a strong, nurturing neighborhoods,” said her son, Garland Jeffrey Gay. “She was also a diligent scholar who maintained consistently high academic standards.”
Ms. Rawlings attended William Alexander Elementary School, No. 112. Her son said she was an excellent student and she was able to skip the second grade.
“Her teacher reported that there was nothing she could teach Rolanda at that level that she didn’t already know,” he said.
She went on to receive honors in an accelerated program at Booker T. Washington Junior High School.
In 1955, after completing the tenth grade at Frederick Douglass High School, Ms. Rawlings transferred to the recently desegregated Eastern High School, where she also maintained her high academic achievement. She was 16 when she graduated and was one of a small number of African American students in Eastern’s class of 1957.
After a year of study at what was then Baltimore Junior College, Ms. Rawlings enrolled at the Cortez W. Peters Business School on Eutaw Place. She graduated in 1960 and was her class valedictorian.
Ms. Rawlings completed additional studies at Federal City College and returned for further study after the college became the University of the District of Columbia.
Wherever she was employed, Ms. Rawlings received outstanding evaluations, commendations, and distinguished service awards. Her employment career includes the Baltimore City Health Department, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, the US Postal Service and the Social Security Administration.
She retired in 1999 as the branch chief in the Legal Affairs Division of the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C.
She met her future husband, Garland Gay Jr. when he was at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. They married in January 1960 at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. She later married Elwyn Rawlings and resided in Harvey, Illinois, and Washington, DC, before returning to live in Baltimore. Rev. Rawlings was the Lutheran chaplain at Howard University.
Ms. Rawlings was an avid reader and liked to solve challenging word puzzles. She played the piano. She also traveled widely throughout the United States, to Western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Japan, China, and Guyana. A lover of the arts, she frequently visited museums — she liked the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — and attended concerts and the National Theater.
“My mother had a routine on Thursday nights,” her son said. “She would leave a bus token out for me to meet her downtown in Washington when we lived there. We would have dinner at one of the department stores, Garfinckel’s, Woodward and Lothrop or Hecht’s, and then go to the National Theater or a movie.”
He also said, “She loved to laugh and to help people. She also respected knowledge and doing things and engaging in activities that were new to her.”
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Her son said his mother was “a person of a strong Christian faith.” Ms. Rawlings had been a member of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and Perkins Square Baptist Church in Baltimore. After moving to Washington, DC, in 1972, she joined the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. She later returned to Baltimore.
After studying the Bible with her brother and sister-in-law, Ms. Rawlings joined the Forest Park Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1985 where she remained a member.
“She was a loving wife, mother, and family member,” her son said. “She led by example, walking in faith, touching, teaching, sharing, counseling, and encouraging all of those she met.”
She is survived by her son, Garland Jeffrey Gay of Washington; two brothers, Ronald A. Handy and Roland Handy Jr., both of Baltimore; and a sister, Rosina Handy Watkins of Baltimore.
According to her request, Ms. Rawlings' remains were donated to the Maryland Anatomy Board for use in the study of vascular dementia.