A Renaissance man steps out of the picture

June 14, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

In the halls of the Baltimore School for the Arts, the waves of teen-agers -- some with the graceful walks of dancers, or paint-spattered clothing, or musical instruments in hand -- part for David Simon as though for Moses in the Red Sea.

"Mr. Simon, did you hear me? I got that job!"

"Mr. Simon, I got that part."

"Hey. Hey. Mr. Simon, what's happenin'?"

Of necessity, Mr. Simon makes his way slowly. Sometimes he stops to chat, sometimes not, but he carefully answers each remark -- always with respect, usually with a name.

As the only director the institution has ever had, Mr. Simon has led the Baltimore School for the Arts for 15 years with a blend of compassion and artistry spiced with a -- of Marine-like precision.

He has watched his graduates go on to college as well as to perform with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the American Ballet Theatre, the San Francisco Dance Company; the Philadelphia Symphony, the New World Symphony, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra; in regional theaters, on Broadway, in films.

Now Mr. Simon is himself about to graduate from another chapter in his long and unusually rich career.

Tomorrow when the doors of the grand old building on Cathedral Street that formerly housed the Alcazar Hotel close for summer vacation, they will also close on Mr. Simon's last academic year as director. Although he will remain at the school until autumn, his imminent departure marks a rite of passage for the school.

"His leaving is one of the great losses of talent for this community. You have only to look at his product -- all of the children who have come through that school and what they have accomplished -- to understand," says Hope Quackenbush, a member of the school's board of trustees.

Or as graduating senior Chris Moore puts it: "He, like, held the school together. It'll be really interesting to see what the next person does."

The search for someone to fill the vacancy left by Mr. Simon's retirement began late last year and is taking longer than &L expected. But no one is surprised.

"We aren't trying to replace David Simon; you can't do that. But we think we'll find the right person. We are looking locally, nationally and even beyond to find someone with stature in the arts and with the experience of an administrator and educator," says Sally Michels, who heads the search committee.

Still, she adds, "It's a cliche, but it's true: David Simon is a hard act to follow."

What an colorful act he has been.

After all, Mr. Simon, 70, was a Marine who served as a radio operator in a special assault company at Iwo Jima and Guam. He performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He's known for taking home stray dogs and cats to his wife, Carole. He's renowned for mimicking everyone from board members to governors. And he's famous for his dance performances in the school's annual productions of the "Nutcracker."

Most of all, he is recognized for having built an infant school of the arts into an institution that's considered one of the best art schools in the country. And, last year, its students had the highest average SAT scores in the city.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was mayor when the school opened in 1980, remembers: "In the beginning, there were those who were skeptical that it was just another idea that wouldn't work, but it really turned out to be very successful. And David Simon was an outstanding leader."

In the early 1970s, as emphasis on arts classes dwindled, a group of Baltimoreans saw a need for a public school in which the most talented high school youths could be trained for careers in the arts. The students would be chosen on the basis of their talent, and they would be taught by professional artists. But their academic studies wouldn't be allowed to suffer.

Because the school has special goals, it receives about $9,411 per student in contrast to an average of $5,948 received by other city schools. The 300-student school hires an unusually high number of part-time faculty members (63) in addition to its 38 full-time teachers. And the school has its own foundation, which raises money to pay for such extras as master classes and to provide college scholarships to graduates.

An independent board

To safeguard the integrity of the school's mission, the city also set up an independent board of trustees to govern the school.

"There was a lot controversy and concern that the promise of the school was not going to be realized unless you had a board that could hire from outside the system and be free of bureaucracy and the original task force," said Tony Carey, who headed the board of trustees in 1979.

Enter Mr. Simon, a wiry man with the curly white hair of a terrier and the tenacity to match.

Mr. Simon, who had been dean of the Manhattan School of Music for nine years, wasn't particularly interested in moving. But when Mr. Carey asked him to come to Baltimore for an interview, he did.

When he began talking, the search committee took notice.

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