BLANCHE FORD BOWLSBEY is a music teacher who still commands respect and discipline from her boys -- even 22 years after she retired from teaching.
Bowlsbey, 85, was the first woman teacher at the then all-male Baltimore City College when she started in 1935. She calls her students her boys, some of whom include Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg and Robert I.H. Hammerman, chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court.
"Everybody loved her," said Steinberg, who graduated in 1952. "You looked up to her and she had a very strong personality.
"It was very prestigious to get in the chorus," he said.
During her 24-year career at the school, Bowlsbey taught more ** than 20,000 students and ushered in a new era of musical activity. She directed more than 20 musicals and started a little symphony orchestra, a junior orchestra, a string quartet and a glee club, just to name a few.
And she's still making music. Bowlsbey regularly directs and produces benefit concerts for the Carroll County Hospice, an organization that helps families of terminally ill patients. This year's fifth annual concert, to be held Sunday, brings together 50 of Bowlsbey's former students who will be singing tunes from such musicals as "Music Man," "Brigadoon" and "Oklahoma." Some of her "boys," 50- to 70-year-old men, actually, are flying in from as far away as Nevada and Minnesota -- at their own expense -- to help her again this year.
"My enthusiasm carried over," Bowlsbey said recently, sporting cool Wayfarer sunglasses. "I've always been enthusiastic about what I was doing. And if you're enthusiastic for something, it's contagious."
Back at City College, for example, to interest boys in singing -- something considered sissy at the time -- Bowlsbey targeted football players to join the glee club. To keep the boys interested, she started them out singing college football fight songs such as Columbia University's "Roar, Lion, Roar."
City College turned coed in 1978 and today enrolls more than 1,300 students. And the music program is still going strong, with two music teachers, a show choir, a regular choir and a jazz band. Bowlsbey can take much of the credit.
"Where else can you see grown men from all over the country flying back to sing for their high school teacher?" asks Judy Tormey, who studied under Bowlsbey in the late '40s when Eastern High School girls took music classes at City College.
"We're coming back not for her benefit, but our own," said Albert Hall, 67, who flew in from Las Vegas Tuesday for rehearsals.
"You have a person here who is unique," said Hall. "She always gave extra time. School let out at 2 p.m., and she would be there at 6 p.m. helping me."
Bowlsbey helped launch the careers of small-time singers and big-time entertainers. Spiros Malas, opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera Co. in New York, started his singing career under Bowlsbey's tutelage.
Besides her music, Bowlsbey remains active in other areas as well. She is president of the Sandyvillagers Senior Club, a post she's held since 1975. She also tends her rose garden, makes home decorations and is a member of the Head of Elk Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as well as the Baltimore Opera Guild.
Bowlsbey originally went to Elkton High School in 1919 to learn stenography. But the state supervisor of music education for public schools heard her play the piano once and said he would get her a scholarship to Towson State University if she were to continue. She took on the challenge, but instead of landing a scholarship at TSU, she earned one for Western Maryland College, where she graduated in 1927 with a degree in French and history and a minor in music. She's never taught a day of French in her life, she says.
Although her two college music teachers pushed her to pursue music professionally, Bowlsbey was never one for the pressure. "They both fussed with me and both felt I should go on professionally," she said. "But I wasn't a competitive spirit. The aunts who raised me were teachers. They were always at the back of my mind."
She taught at elementary schools for a couple of years after college, married in 1929, then left the working world -- as most women did back then. After other stints as a supervisor and a middle school music teacher, she was transferred to the all-male high school in 1935.
Her first day at the high school was marked by surprise.
"They were too shocked," said Bowlsbey. "They asked, with all the men music teachers, why did they have to send a woman teacher? I didn't know what I was going to find."
But she told them she was going to be there for at least a year, so they should get used to it.
"It was amazing how she controlled the class," said Bull Biehl, also a former student at City College. "Her control over the class had to do with the respect the youngsters gave her. She was always encouraging."
"I didn't have to send a boy to the principal for 20 years," she says proudly.