Even in retirement, she takes kids under her wing

May 22, 1992|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

When Magdalene Barber Fennell was graduating from high school, no one ever talked to her about college. Not a teacher. Not a counselor. No one. But when she took her place among the Douglass High School Class of 1947, she soon realized that someone had plans for her.

Unbeknown to the young Miss Barber, she had been chosen to receive a $50 award given by the Zeta Phi Beta sorority to attend Morgan State College.

With a 30-year career in education behind her and two masters degrees to her name, Mrs. Fennell now says proudly: "I'm so glad that they did that for me."

Now it's her turn. And although Mrs. Fennell has been helping young people for more than a decade in her retirement, what she and her husband, Harold, have decided to do for 31 fifth-graders at Hilton Elementary School goes beyond the classroom.

The Fennells have invested $100 for each child as a scholarship fund in which the students will share when they graduate from high school. High school diploma in hand, each member of the "Hilton Education Club" will receive a check -- "hopefully," the Fennells say, to be used for college or for some kind of technical job training.

It's nourishment for a seed, an incentive to keep learning, a chance for the boys and girls in Class 05-02 to prove that they are all the North Baltimore couple believe them to be -- enthusiastic, thirsty for knowledge, winners.

"I guess we fell in love with this class. I don't think they're different from any other class. But I'm hoping they feel they're different," said Mr. Fennell, a retired city employee who says he's been going to school all his life. "You don't have to have a lot of talent or ability to show a child that you care. Because they never forget. Years after, they will remember somebody who took a little time with them."

Mrs. Fennell remembered the women from Zeta Phi Beta. And there were others during her 60-plus years who made a difference.

"You give back what you get," said Mrs. Fennell, a former teacher, principal and administrator in the city school system. "We're all here together. And particularly with African-American children . . . we who have the ability and the means and the time should help them. We're hoping other people will be inspired to do something."

The children in Class 05-02 inspired the Fennells.

Last fall Mrs. Fennell volunteered to work at Hilton Elementary as part of a youth project sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the Continental Societies, a national service organization of women devoted to assisting disadvantaged youths. It wasn't the first time she had volunteered with kids. Mrs. Fennell and other Continentals had helped a class of high schoolers understand the business world -- how to apply for a job, what to wear on an interview.

Before she entered Jean Sanifer's fifth-grade class, Mrs. Fennell wasn't sure what she would find. She had read newspaper headlines about the state of the city schools: beleaguered, underfunded, overwhelmed by societal ills.

"There are so many other distractions we didn't have," said Mrs. Fennell, who picked up her second masters degree, from Loyola College, on the same day her son, Carlton, received his first. "The level of violence in the community, the drugs, the broken homes, hunger."

From October to December Mrs. Fennell traveled every Wednesday from her North Baltimore condominium to the Hanlon Park school, where more than half of the school's 700 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch or breakfast. A former high school teacher, Mrs. Fennell deliberately chose to work with fifth-graders because they were the oldest youngsters in the school.

"I always thought of elementary-school kids as little things squirming all around," said Mrs. Fennell, who retired in 1982.

She learned otherwise.

"The class was so well-behaved. They were neat. They were clean. And they seem to care about each other," said Mrs. Fennell, the first among eight siblings to graduate from college. "They could discuss things. I was amazed at the maturity of the answers I would receive."

Like the day she brought in stamps for the Christmas cards the children were sending to their pen pals at a senior citizens complex in West Baltimore. The stamp featured a young black man, Jan E. Matzeliger, and Mrs. Fennell asked if anyone knew who he was. Sure enough, someone did -- he invented a machine in 1883 that revolutionized shoe manufacturing.

"When she came home, she was so impressed" with the children, her husband said, "so enthusiastic about the class. She said, 'They're so bright. They're so responsive. They seem to be so hungry in their learning.' So I had to go see."

What Mr. Fennell saw made him want to improvise on a commitment the couple had made to help students with their education. In 1985, Mr. Fennell began a scholarship in his wife's name for a Douglass High School student attending Morgan State.

L But "we felt we needed to start earlier," Mrs. Fennell said.

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