Advertisement
Hall of Fame

Baltimore Sun’s 2022 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: Deborah Phelps

Deborah “Debbie” Phelps remembers the school counselor in her Western Maryland hometown who told her years ago she “really wasn’t college material.”

Some high school students might have been crushed, but for Ms. Phelps, it was pure motivation. “I thought, ‘Well, I will prove you wrong. I will go to college, and I will be successful,’” said the 71-year-old executive director for the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools.

Advertisement

She would not only graduate from West Virginia’s Fairmont State College in 1973 with a degree in home economics, she would later get her master’s in education management from Loyola.

Perseverance and determination have defined Ms. Phelps’ career in education, from her decades in the classroom to her years in school administration and support. They are traits she also nurtured in her children, daughters Hilary and Whitney, and son Michael, the famed Olympic gold medalist.

Advertisement

When her eldest, Hilary, developed passion for swimming at age 9 — and wanted to learn how to swim faster — Ms. Phelps signed her up for lessons at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, known for developing Olympians. “If they wanted to open a door, I wasn’t going to shut it,” Ms. Phelps said. Even when it meant predawn wake-up calls and hours on the road.

For inspiration, she drew from the example of her mother, a hardworking woman from Western Maryland named Leoma Davisson who always found a way to make things work. Ms. Phelps racked up miles on her minivan driving to the pool from her home in Harford County, all while teaching home economics full time. The kids did homework in the car and always smelled like chlorine.

When it comes to her own parenting philosophy, Ms. Phelps says: “Allow your child to explore … to fall on their face, to pick themselves up.” She is adamantly against helicopter parenting.

Through the years, Hilary and Whitney continued to swim competitively. But it was Michael who, in 2000, became at age 15 the youngest male to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in years. His mom, meanwhile, became “Baltimore’s favorite mother,” in the words of a 2011 Sun profile.

Ms. Phelps recounted her years as an Olympic mom in her 2009 memoir, “A Mother for All Seasons.” In the book’s prologue, she explained that she’s a bit of an easy crier, prone to tears even at some “inopportune occasions.” Friends and family refer to them as “DP [Debbie Phelps] moments.” She still gets them, for example, when talking about her grandchildren.

After a few years of the long hauls between Harford County and the pool in Baltimore, Ms. Phelps and her children relocated to Towson, where she took a position with the Southwest Academy for the Arts and Sciences. There, she developed an award-winning nutrition and food science middle school curriculum and designed a Food Science Lab, bringing her background in home economics into the 21st century.

She later transitioned into school administration, becoming principal of Windsor Mill Middle School when it first opened in Baltimore County. “My fingerprints and my heart prints are all over this schoolhouse,” she told The Sun in 2009.

She worked there until 2012. That year, when the was on “Olympics No. 4,” Ms. Phelps was informed that she had been recommended to lead Baltimore County’s Education Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for schools through area businesses.

Advertisement

Was it a job she wanted? Well, she’s diplomatic: “You work at the pleasure of your superintendent,” Ms. Phelps said.

With trademark grit, Ms. Phelps made the most of it, expanding the foundation’s grant program and opening two resource centers to provide teachers with supplies they and their students need to succeed.

Kim Schatzel, president of Towson University, called Ms. Phelps a “tremendous advocate” who has raised the foundation’s profile and advocated for new support, all the while drawing on her experience as a classroom teacher and principal. “Her leadership in that space has been phenomenal,” Dr. Schatzel said.

Ms. Phelps, Dr. Schatzel said, is someone she can always count on. “If I text her, she calls back immediately. She’s a great friend.”

Ms. Phelps plans to retire in 2024, culminating a 50-year career in education. What might her own next chapter include?

“I might go back to school,” she said. “I’d like to be Dr. Phelps.”

Advertisement

If only her high school guidance counselor could see.

Deborah “Debbie” Phelps

Age: 71

Hometown: Westernport, Maryland

Current residence: Baltimore

Education: B.A. Fairmont State College; master’s degree from Loyola University of Maryland.

Advertisement

Career highlights: Executive director of The Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, principal of Windsor Mill Middle School.

Civic and charitable activities: Board member: The Michael Phelps Foundation, Towson Chamber of Commerce. Member of the Women’s Leadership Institute of Baltimore, Advisory Board Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Family: Three children, and a combined nine grandchildren.


Advertisement