Headmaster to retire -- a 3rd try Odyssey chief known for guiding, improving independent schools

July 08, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Ham Bishop has been filling voids for much of his career.

He did it in the 1950s at Gilman School when the headmaster didn't have time to make decisions for the lower school. He did so again in the 1970s, calming a Charlottesville, Va., school after an unsettling merger. And he stepped into Boys' Latin in the summer of '92 to soothe hard feelings and launch that school's comeback.

Now, Alexander Hamilton Bishop III, the first headmaster of Baltimore's Odyssey School and a fixture at private schools in Maryland and Virginia, is creating a void. He's retiring.

Actually, this is Bishop's third attempt at retirement.

"The only one who's retired more than Ham Bishop is Magic Johnson," says Dyson Erhardt, development director at Boys' Latin on Lake Avenue, which lured him from his first retirement in 1992.

"I think it's time I step down," Bishop says, sitting in the library at Odyssey, the 2-year-old school on Roland Avenue for children with dyslexia. "A headmaster has to be there -- for the parents, for the kids especially, for the faculty. That's sort of where I am running out of gas."

In 46 years as an educator, he's been a headmaster for 36 at five schools. He integrated Charlottesville's Belfield School in the 1960s and oversaw its merger with St. Anne's in the 1970s. He's seen enrollments fall and rise, and he's seen the need for more accountability by independent schools.

"I've done a lot and I've been very, very lucky," says Bishop, who will be 70 next month.

A product of Philadelphia public schools before coming to St. Paul's in 10th grade -- then in Mount Washington -- Bishop has spent his career in independent schools.

He started at Gilman in 1950, did a summer coaching stint at Friends School, moved to the Belfield School -- later St. Anne's-Belfield -- in Charlottesville and then to the McLean School in Potomac. He "retired" from McLean in 1992, before agreeing to short stints at Boys' Latin and Odyssey.

"He's done a wonderful thing for the Odyssey School," says board Chairman Bruce McLaughlin. "What he brought to us was long-term experience."

When Bishop left McLean -- two years earlier than planned because of a wearing commute from Arlington, Va. -- he and his wife moved back to Baltimore "and bought the only home we've ever owned." All the other years, they had lived on school campuses or in homes provided by the schools.

Boys' Latin, in the throes of a faculty feud that saw then-headmaster William Endres resign, was looking for an interim head.

"Those two years were perhaps the best two years of my headships," Bishop says. "I was just determined to bring the school together and improve morale."

The former All-American and member of the Johns Hopkins University's undefeated 1950 lacrosse team was even known to wield a lacrosse stick occasionally at Boys' Latin -- much to the delight of a student body not used to an accessible headmaster.

"He was tremendous," Boys' Latin's Erhardt says. "He came in at a difficult time and smoothed things out."

Says the former headmaster, "I stayed two years because they asked me to. Then I was ready to retire."

But it was not to be.

The Odyssey School, founded by parents desperate for a suitable school for their bright, but dyslexic, children, was getting ready to open with about 20 students. And Bishop was once again available. He had worked with children with learning disabilities at McLean and had experience hiring a staff and putting together a board of trustees.

He was Odyssey's man.

"We are a brand-new school. We didn't have a lot of things figured out," says McLaughlin. "But he had done it all before; he had seen it all before."

True to the advice of his mentor, the late Gilman headmaster Henry H. Callard, Bishop retained his openness. Every morning he stood outside the school, greeting students and prompting Roland Park neighbors to ask, "Who is that white-haired gentleman?"

This, too, was a plus for the school, says McLaughlin. "When you saw Mr. B -- as Bishop is known at Odyssey -- standing out in front of that old building, it looked like we had been around a long time."

Bishop says he could assess students' progress by the way they greeted him. When the students were new to Odyssey -- usually coming from schools where they had not been successful or happy -- they would hardly look at him, he recalls. By the end of the year, though, they would shake his hand and stop to chat.

That, he says, was even more rewarding than their academic progress.

Now that the school is flourishing, Bishop is going to try retirement again. Odyssey's new headmaster, M. Bradley Rogers Jr., recently moved into the corner office that had been Mr. B's.

Many characteristics of independent -- private sounds too elite, Bishop says -- schools have remained unchanged throughout his career. But the need to be accountable is greater now, he says.

"I felt we could teach basket-weaving or anything," Bishop says of his early days, when he went to Gilman to teach fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders and to coach high school students. "The waiting lists were enormous. All independent schools are more accountable than in 1950."

He adds, "Tuitions are sky-high. You have to be darn good if you're going to stay in business. You've got to make sure you have a mission statement and stick to that mission. You have to make darn sure you know what you're doing."

Despite retirement, Ham Bishop is darn sure he wants to continue working with children. So, in the twilight of his career, he has applied for a much-maligned position -- substitute teacher -- at a number of the schools he's been associated with.

"I love teaching history and English," he says. "And I think I still have enough on the ball that no one's going to put something over on me."

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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