Friends, students say goodbye to Mr. Caldwell

April 20, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Walter Caldwell Sr. loved children. The longtime Howard County educator had two of his own and spent most of his life teaching others, touching the lives of many.

Mr. Caldwell -- "Poppa Bear," as he was known -- was buried yesterday at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia. He died Wednesday of a heart attack, about a month after his 63rd birthday. More than 300 friends, colleagues and former students attended his funeral service at the Oakland Mills Meeting House in Columbia.

A Howard County educator for more than 22 years, he was Hammond High School's first principal, and later held the same job at Glenelg High. He had recovered from a 1989 stroke to return to Glenelg, then moved to the central administration offices. Two months ago he went back to the classroom as interim principal at Owen Brown Middle School. "He knew the only thing that lasted in this world was love, and he gave a lot of it," said Terry Turner, an Owen Brown Middle School student whom Mr. Caldwell tutored in math.

"I was in awe of his wisdom and knowledge," he said. "I shall miss him."

Mr. Caldwell grew up in the small town of Pulaski, Tenn., where he played high school football and basketball. Although his school didn't have a track team -- or a track -- he won a track scholarship to attend Tennessee State University, where he was respected by the faculty and a consultant to the university's president, said John Finch Nelson, a childhood and college friend.

"Walter Caldwell was a scholar, an athlete and a gentleman in school and in the community," said Mr. Nelson. "Walter was the standard by which we were all measured."

Mr. Caldwell joined the Howard County school system in 1971 at Wilde Lake High School, where he taught math and coached football, becoming assistant principal two years later.

"I just wanted to teach math and coach," Mr. Caldwell said in an interview three years ago. "I didn't ever want to be principal."

He left Wilde Lake in 1977 to become Hammond High School's first principal. He remained there until 1985, when he was transferred to Glenelg High School. He was Glenelg's principal for five years until he left to work in central administration. He suffered a stroke in late 1989.

At Glenelg he was so well known for his trademark triple "Good mornings," his "I can be nice to you longer than you can be nasty to me" and other expressions that the student newspaper dubbed them "Walt Caldwellisms."

Colleagues said that while he worked at central administration, he would always make an excuse to go out in the schools to be among children.

"He lived his life with joy because of what he could do for others, especially for the kids," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who remembered that parents and students picketed the Department of Education for the first time when Mr. Caldwell was transferred to Glenelg.

Parents say Mr. Caldwell always talked about the love he had for his family.

"He was very warm, and he was the kind of person that you could tell him anything, and you just knew he understood because he loved his family so much," said Betsy Haney, whose son graduated from Glenelg five years ago.

Ms. Haney's son had emotional and behavioral problems during high school, and Mr. Caldwell "got through to him when nobody else did," she said. "For months, Walt would wait outside the classroom, and he would walk with him from class to class and talk to him. Not only did he turn him around, but my son will graduate from college next year.

"I feel we've lost a saint," she said. "He was a real saint."

Mr. Caldwell is survived by his wife, Albertha Johnson Caldwell; a daughter, Cherie M. Caldwell of Atlanta; a son, Walter Caldwell Jr. of Los Angeles; and a sister, Ruth Caldwell Patterson of Pulaski, Tenn.

The family asks that contributions be made in Mr. Caldwell's name to the United Negro College Fund, 700 13th St. N.W., Suite 1180, Washington, D.C. 20003.

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