The Rev. Donald Wassmann, 67, helped run Md. Office on Aging

November 13, 1994|By Amy L. Miller and DeWitt Bliss | Amy L. Miller and DeWitt Bliss,Sun Staff Writers

The Rev. Donald Leslie Wassmann, a retired deputy director of the state Office on Aging and an early civil rights activist, died Wednesday of emphysema at Howard County General Hospital.

Friends said Mr. Wassmann, who was 67, had lived a varied and adventurous life. He served as a naval radioman in World War II and participated in the 1965 voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala.

"He was very, very unusual," said Rosalie Silber Abrams, director of the Maryland Office on Aging.

Ms. Abrams worked with Mr. Wassmann at the state office for nearly six years until his retirement in 1991. From 1973 until he went to the Maryland Office on Aging, he was chief of the Montgomery County Division of Elder Affairs.

"He was very bright, very sensitive and very dedicated to the people he was serving," Ms. Abrams said. "We were friends. He was a very caring person and I miss him."

Mr. Wassmann, ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1962, also worked to build connections among people, Ms. Abrams said.

On one occasion, a member of the Japanese House of Councillors was visiting Maryland to learn about the state's programs for senior citizens. When the man mentioned he was from Okinawa, Mr. Wassmann, who joined the military at age 15, told him he had been in a battle there during World War II, Ms. Abrams said.

The man replied, "I was defending Okinawa," she recalled.

"They were sitting across the table from each other and just looked at each other for a moment. Then they put their hands out simultaneously and shook hands. It was a very touching moment."

After returning from the war, Mr. Wassmann -- a native of Mystic, Conn. -- attended Western Maryland College in Westminster, where he met his wife of 42 years, the former Katharine Bliss.

"The reason he came down here to go to school was that a friend who was teaching at the school encouraged him to do so," Mrs. Wassmann said.

Mr. Wassmann worked for about 10 years as an industrial engineer for the DuPont Co. in Wilmington, Del., and in Nashville, Tenn. But he began to believe that he could be doing more to help others and entered the Crane School of Divinity at Tufts University, Mrs. Wassmann said.

"He wanted to work with the more human aspects of life," she said. "This was a way for him to be involved with people in a more meaningful way."

After his ordination, Mr. Wassmann served congregations in Sharon, Mass., and West Hartford, Conn. In Sharon, he had started a program in which inner-city children visited suburban families.

He also was one of many voting rights demonstrators who came to Selma, Ala., from throughout the nation on March 9, 1965. Although that demonstration ended peacefully, several ministers were beaten that evening and one of them later died.

"He felt there were spiritual aspects to all of life and that the important thing was to be a 'real' human being," Mrs. Wassmann said. "By that, he meant to be imperfect and to be able to accept oneself in spite of that."

A memorial service was to be held at 12:30 p.m. today at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, 7246 Cradlerock Way in Columbia.

Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters, Bonnie Leigh Granek and Leslie Joanne Cross white, both of Columbia; a son, Robert S. Wassmann of Bethesda; a brother, Milton L. Wassmann Jr. of Falls Church, Va.; a sister, Virginia W. Oliver of Lancaster, Pa.; and four grandchildren.

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