Dr. Elizabeth A. "Betty" Edmonds, a longtime city public school principal who was fearless in her efforts to straighten out troubled schools and later joined the faculty of Coppin State University, died May 21 of pneumonia at Sinai Hospital.
The longtime Ashburton resident was 87.
"She was a great American story and that's why her life is so inspirational. She had the old-fashioned educational values and was an educator's educator," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, an old friend.
"Betty had a great faith in values, the respect for authority and the importance of learning to read and write. She was passionate and had high standards and would not tolerate or accept mediocrity," said Dr. Hrabowski.
"She knew how to treat people yet expected the most from them because of her standards. She had devoted her life to educating children," he said.
The daughter of a recreational center worker and a domestic, Elizabeth Arthur was born in Halifax, Va., and moved shortly after her birth to Baltimore, where she was raised by her grandmother.
After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1941, Dr. Edmonds integrated the knitting machinist department at the old Western Electric Co. Point Breeze plant that manufactured communication cables, working there during World War II.
She also helped integrate Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. when she went to work there in 1946.
Dr. Edmonds earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Loyola College, and in 1993 she earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Maryland, College Park.
She had been working as a long-distance telephone operator for a decade when she was hired in 1956 by city public schools.
And at the time she was assigned to teach seventh- and eighth-grade English at Gwynns Falls Junior High School, Dr. Edmonds was the only African-American member of the faculty.
Dr. Edmonds later taught at Carrollton Junior High School and Lombard Junior High School, which she helped open and where she established a chapter of the National Honor Society as well as a tutorial program for elementary students in feeder schools.
Dr. Edmonds, who taught English from the seventh- to 12th-grade levels, joined the faculty of Douglass High School and later Northwestern High School, which she also helped open. She taught basic English, taught college preparatory and business English.
In the early 1970s, she moved into the area of administration and supervisory positions beginning at William Lemmel Junior High School, where she was English department chair and served as assistant principal for nearly a year.
Her first principalship came in 1974, when she was appointed to head Booker T. Washington Junior High School, which was in a demoralized and chaotic state. There, Dr. Edmonds honed her skills and made her reputation as an administrator who had a knack for fixing troubled schools.
What she found was a school riddled by a high rate of teacher complaints, student absences, vandalism and severe discipline problems.
"I was taken aback," she recalled in a 1977 interview in The Evening Sun. "I had never been a principal before. I was bewildered at first by what I found."
Dr. Edmonds was credited with bringing a "sharp tongue" and "authoritarian manner" to the school.
In the interview with The Evening Sun, she explained her personality had nothing to do with fixing the school's ills and that the "staff needed someone to tell them what to do and see that they did it. I'm not a retreater and I'm not a loser."
The next year, she inherited a similar situation when she was named principal of Northern Parkway Junior High. She was assistant principal and then principal of Western High School from 1977 to 1980.
"When I came to Western, she was the assistant principal. She absolutely set high standards and expected you to adhere to them at the highest possible level," said Luwanda W. Jenkins, who is special assistant to Reginald S. Avery, president of Coppin State University.
"And we as Western students had a role model who pushed us farther and farther along. She made us strive to what we could be," said Ms. Jenkins.
Dr. Edmonds became a controversial figure in 1980 when she took the helm of Southwestern High School and decreed that students had to have passed all courses in the previous grading period to be eligible to play sports.
Immediately, a third of the football team was ineligible, and in the resulting brouhaha, the team was forced to forfeit three games.
Dr. Edmonds' actions resulted in school officials' overhauling the eligibility policy and making it consistent. Students were required to pass five of their six courses to gain eligibility for interscholastic athletics.
Reflecting a year later on her actions, Dr. Edmonds told The Baltimore Sun, "I didn't know I was upsetting the order. What are schools for, anyway? People send their children to school to pass their subjects."
"She was a pioneer and did so much for the city schools," said Genevieve M. Knight, who was a longtime friend and colleague. "And when she came to straighten out a school, by the time she left, it was."
"She was a wonderful teacher but didn't take any slack off of students. If a paper was due on a certain date, that was the day it was due. And if it wasn't right, she'd give it back and make them do it over," said Dr. Knight, who was math department chair at Coppin when she retired in 2006. "She was definitely from the old school."
After retiring as principal at Northern High School in 1988, Dr. Edmonds remained in education, beginning a second career as an adjunct professor at Coppin, where she taught honors and remedial English and business management communications.
"She continued teaching right up to the end. She was vital and never missed a beat," said Dr. Judith D. Willner, an assistant professor in the visual and performing arts department at Coppin.
"She was the best of the best, and everyone here honored and continues to honor her," she said. "She left more with us than we can ever hope to repay."
Her husband of 53 years, Norman Alvin Edmonds, a General Motors Corp. autoworker and professional musician, died in 2006.
A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Delta Community Center, 2501 Springhill Ave.
She is survived by her son, W. Bernard Edmonds of Baltimore; and special friend Joe Ann Oatis of Owings Mills.Copyright © 2015, CT Now