Osborne A. Payne

Osborne A. Payne (Baltimore Sun / November 29, 2012)

Osborne A. Payne, a former educator who became a trailblazing Baltimore businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist, died Tuesday of Alzheimer's disease at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Columbia.

He was 87.

"He was one of Baltimore's great unsung heroes," former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is now a Howard University administrator, said Thursday. "I knew him as a businessman and a promoter of small-business development in the city and in city government. He was a real pioneer in economic development."

"Osborne was kind, generous and a leader. We were fellow churchmen for about 30 years, and while he was a downtown businessman, I was working at Price Waterhouse," said Tom Brandt.

"So, we were both business and church friends — we ushered together for 20 years — and he helped St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City become an important part of the community," said Mr. Brandt. "Everything about the man was admirable, and I treasured our friendship."

Osborne Allen Payne was born in Bedford, Va., to a cabdriver and a homemaker. In 1927, he moved with his family to Roanoke, Va., when his father landed a job "de-roaching" passenger and dining cars for the Norfolk & Western Railway.

In a 1989 profile in The Sunday Sun Magazine, Mr. Payne said his father's two-week paychecks never amounted to $50 before the 1950s.

"My mother was an excellent budgeter," he said. "It was a house full of love, but no money. We had so much love, we didn't even know we were poor."

Ambitious even as a youth, Mr. Payne's first job when he was 12 was mopping the floor of a Roanoke barbershop paid 25 cents, which he said was a good wage during the Depression. The salary grew to a dollar a week after he began lighting the morning fire and sweeping the floor.

Then he opened a shoeshine stand and after graduating from Addison High School in 1943, he learned sheet-metal work at what is now Virginia State University in Petersburg. He then enlisted in the Navy, where he was an aviation metalsmith.

Discharged in 1946, Mr. Payne entered Virginia Union University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1950 in history, and five years later, a master's degree in educational administration from Virginia State.

He began his career in 1950 as an elementary school teacher in Virginia's Chesterfield and Henrico counties, and in 1957 moved to Richmond when he took a teaching position at West End Elementary School.

Mr. Payne was later promoted to principal of Mary Scott Elementary School, and he was principal of Whitcomb Elementary School until 1962, when he took a job as an educational adviser with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Liberia, where he oversaw school construction.

He returned to Virginia in 1965 to help Roanoke Valley organize Total Action Against Poverty, its first anti-poverty program. As the agency's educational director, he helped establish 10 day-care centers in the Roanoke area.

In 1967, Mr. Payne took a job with the National Education Association as director of NEA-SEARCH, whose mission was locating available positions for teachers, principally those displaced by desegregation.

While working for the NEA, a colleague told him about her husband's plans to purchase an airplane so he could commute daily from his Washington home to his new job in Philadelphia.

"Wow, what kind of business pays that kind of money?" he asked.

"McDonald's," she replied.

"You've got to be joking," said a somewhat nonplused Mr. Payne.

The exchange aroused Mr. Payne's curiosity, so he ordered a franchise packet from McDonald's and some 30 other companies. His first pick was Holiday Inn, but he didn't have the $250,000 franchise fee, so he turned to his second choice, McDonald's.