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Yvonne M. Theodore, former Hopkins official who worked to diversify student body, dies

Yvonne Theodore
Yvonne Theodore (HANDOUT)

Yvonne M. Theodore, a former assistant to the provost at the Johns Hopkins University whose philanthropic interests were Roman Catholic-based charities, died of cardiovascular disease Jan. 22 at her Canton home.

She was 78.

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The daughter of Richard Powell, a farmer and mechanic, and Alice Powell, a homemaker, Yvonne Michelle Powell was born in Upper Marlboro. When she was 8, she moved with her family to a home on McCulloh Street.

"She was the first African-American to graduate from Catholic High School of Baltimore," said her son, Dr. Pierre Reynald Theodore, a cardiothoracic surgeon and health care executive who lives in San Francisco.

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After earning a bachelor's degree in biology from the old Mount St. Agnes College in Mount Washington in 1958, Ms. Theodore was selected to participate in a U.S. Agency for International Development program at Makerere University Kampala in the East African country of Uganda, where she taught for four years and earned a master's degree.

She traveled extensively through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Greece, where she was briefly a professional model, as well as Europe, before returning to Baltimore in 1966.

She married Dr. Roger Theodore, a Haitian-born surgeon, in 1967. The couple divorced in 1970.

Ms. Theodore went to work for Baltimore's Community Relations Commission, where her focus was on fair housing legislation and implementation.

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She did graduate work at Columbia University and earned a second master's degree from Johns Hopkins, where she wrote about the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and women in science and engineering.

She worked for Provident Comprehensive Health Center before coming to Hopkins, where she served as an administrative assistant to Dr. Dennis Carlson, director of the Center for Allied Health Careers at Hopkins Medical Institutions.

In 1971, she went to work in Hopkins' human resources division as director of the university's affirmative action program and coordinator for disability services.

The department, which was located in Garland Hall on the Homewood campus, was later responsible for establishing a nationally recognized equal-opportunity and affirmative-action program at the university, her son said.

In 1988, only 25 of the university's 1,563 full-time faculty were African-American, and there were no black department heads.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun at the time, Ms. Theodore said that the "percentages were small because the school lacks the divisions that traditionally attract large numbers of blacks: social work, business and law."

"Yvonne was a quiet but effective advocate for creating a more diverse Hopkins," William R. Brody, who served as the university's president from 1996 to 2009, wrote in an email.

"During her tenure, she was an effective advocate for increasing the diversity of the Hopkins undergraduate student by body, as well as advancing unrepresented minorities to great roles of responsibility," he wrote. "It was not an easy task; progress was slow but steady. She continually stressed Hopkins' role in the community. A gentle soul, she will be missed by many but the legacy of her work continues."

She was also special assistant to Provost Stephen Knapp, who later became president of George Washington University. She held the position until 2000, when she took early retirement.

"Theodore once described her career at Johns Hopkins by saying that she worked for all JHU schools and programs around the world, wrote federal proposals, investigated and resolved legal cases for the university's Office of the General Counsel, and 'resolved conflicts between virtually every imaginable human category,''' according to a university profile.

"Her commitment to justice and equity remains legendary at Johns Hopkins and continues to further the university's progress in creating a learning community enriched by its diversity," the profile said.

Dr. Brody described Ms. Theodore as a "curious intellect" who "was always learning new things."

After leaving Hopkins, she worked as a research assistant for a market research firm that specialized in medical and scientific services and equipment, and later wrote and edited a newsletter that was used by Morgan State University's research and grants department.

She later served as a consultant to the U.S. State Department as a research analyst before taking a second retirement in 2005.

Ms. Theodore's philanthropic interests included Catholic Charities' Youth Organization, Catholic Relief Services and St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church, where she attended Mass.

For more than 13 years, she produced a cooking and nutrition show for the Radio Reading Network of Maryland, edited a newsletter for seniors and retirees in Baltimore County, and led prayer groups at a nursing home near her Canton home.

She enjoyed visiting friends in West Africa, collecting Congolese music and dancing to African music. She was also a jazz lover and was a lifetime member of the Duke Ellington Society.

"Most of all, for a single black lady born in 1939, she defied every expectation that social class, economic status, race and gender might have imposed on her and lived an extraordinary life of service and refinement," her son wrote.

"There is one person in a million that lives a life that teaches us that limits are not to be blindly accepted. She was that one person," he wrote.

Ms. Theodore was also a communicant of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, 10636 Liberty Road in Randallstown, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday. (Services will be held at the old church, and not the present one at 9531 Liberty Road.)

In addition to her son, she is survived by a sister, Gloria Stewart of Prince George's County; and two grandchildren.

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