Karen B. Salmon’s path to becoming the Maryland state superintendent of schools began close to home — namely, with her mother. When public school teachers in Harford County went on strike in May 1976, Ruth Burkins, secondary supervisor at schools in Aberdeen, Edgewood and Havre de Grace, joined other administrators to create lesson plans to continue teaching students.
“That’s when I thought, ‘You know what? This is the best job when you can really mold and work with future leaders,’ ” recalled Dr. Salmon. “It was then that I realized that I wanted to do the same thing. It’s funny because my father, my sister and I used to say the same thing. We would say, ‘Mom, you’re going to die walking down the hallway of a school,’ because she was always working. But I think it was kind of innate. It is something that I kind of fought because you never want to do what your parents do. But then when I saw what she did, it was so amazing that I wanted to do it, too.”
Dr. Burkins, a teacher and administrator in Harford County for 32 years, died Aug. 21 at her home in Newark, Delaware, of complications from metastatic breast cancer. She would have celebrated her 91st birthday Sept. 8.
Dr. Burkins is credited with mentoring several future county school superintendents, including Harford’s Jacqueline C. Haas, Worcester’s Jon Andes and Cecil’s Carl Roberts.
The former Ruth Heaps was the youngest of four children born to Wilson A. Heaps and the former Maria Jane Stokes, who owned a farm in Highland, a village in Street in Harford County. Maybe because she was the youngest, Ms. Heaps was a favorite of her father’s.
“She got away with a lot,” said Dr. Salmon, who lives in Bozman in Talbot County. “She could drive a tractor by the time she was 12. She would be the one watching the cows getting milked. She was the one that got to drive to Baltimore with my grandfather when they were selling tomatoes. She was very much the one that would be in the hayloft when she wasn’t supposed to be. She was very much a tomboy and really was very active running around the farm and doing things there. And she loved that.”
Dr. Burkins graduated from Highland High School in 1945 and discovered a fondness for the classroom that rivaled her affinity for her family’s farm.
“She loved school,” her daughter said. “She said every subject was her favorite.”
After graduating from Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1950 with a bachelor’s in religious studies with a minor in secondary education, she went back home and married Charles A. Burkins, whom she had known since the second grade. That fall, she began teaching at Bel Air High School, leaving in 1953 for a five-year hiatus to raise two daughters, Karen and Joan. (The latter died of undetermined causes in 2019.)
In 1958, Dr. Burkins returned to teaching core and other subjects at North Harford High School. While teaching, she enrolled at the University of Maryland, earning a master’s degree in secondary education with a minor in special education in 1965.
In 1966, she successfully applied to become the secondary supervisor. And 12 years later, she graduated from Maryland with a doctorate in secondary education.
In 1983, Dr. Burkins added supervisor of special education for Harford County to her role as supervisor at Bel Air Middle and High schools. She then was awarded a three-year grant from the Maryland Department of Education to develop a curriculum for gifted students that included general principles for addressing the learning needs of a small group of students rather than treating them as if they are basically alike.
Dr. Salmon said her mother repeated a familiar refrain about her teaching philosophy.
“She said to me often, ‘You have to love the unlovely,’ and that’s something that I’ve carried out throughout my career,” she said. “She loved all kids and valued all kids and wanted all kids to have all of the educational opportunities. She was very strong and passionate about that.”
Dr. Salmon said her mother delivered a 30-minute lecture to a group of guests at her 90th birthday party last September on what was important in life, and one point she emphasized was admitting a mistake.
“She was the director of special education, and there would be times when parents wanted a certain placement, and the committee would recommend one thing, and then she would discover something else,” she said. “She would then go back to the parents and say, ‘You know what? We were wrong about that.’ And the parents were like, ‘Really? You would admit that you were wrong?’ Mom felt it was very important that you did that so that you could have a better outcome.”
After Mr. Burkins suffered a heart attack in 1986, Dr. Burkins retired the following year from Harford County. But her retirement was short-lived; she was chosen by the Maryland Department of Education and other public school systems as a consultant.
In 1995, Dr. Burkins was selected as a Distinguished Alumni Honoree by the University of Maryland’s College of Education, and six years later she was added by the Harford County Retired Personnel Association to the county’s Educators Hall of Fame.
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Wave Starnes said she had known Dr. Burkins since 1961 when her husband, the Rev. Thomas Starnes, was appointed pastor at Emory United Methodist Church in Street and she was invited to Dr. Burkins’ house with her two children and a newborn. Mrs. Starnes later succeeded Dr. Burkins as an English and social studies teacher at North Harford.
“It was sort of overwhelming to be the next teacher after her,” Mrs. Starnes said. “When she was teaching that class, she had those kids in her hands with the way she instructed. And they loved her. When they first came to me, they loved going back and telling her something that I had done or said that wasn’t quite up to her standards.”
Mr. Starnes called Dr. Burkins“a person of conscience” and “a progressive,” especially when it came to his son, Floyd Starnes, who is gay.
“Ruth has gone to battle more than once when she would be in a group at her church or somewhere and they would go on about gay folks,” he said. “She would tell them about Floyd, who as far as she was concerned was a son of hers. … She was a Christian in the best sense of the word.”
No public service for Dr. Burkins is scheduled. She will be buried next to her husband, who died in 1990 of complications from his heart attack, at Emory United Methodist Church Cemetery in Street.