John Angelo Pentz, 99, taught poetry, grammar at City College

July 26, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John Angelo Pentz, a venerable presence at City College where he taught literature, poetry and grammar for nearly four decades, died Tuesday at Memorial Hospital at Easton from complications of a fall he suffered in May. He was 99.

Born and raised in East Baltimore, Mr. Pentz was a 1921 graduate of City's arch-rival Polytechnic Institute and earned his bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1925. He was first in his class at the University of Baltimore, where he earned a law degree in 1937. He returned to JHU and earned a master's degree in English in 1951.

It was the intellectual rigors of the classroom rather than the practice of law that intrigued Mr. Pentz throughout his life.

He began his teaching career in 1926 when he joined the faculty of the old Jacob Tome School in Port Deposit. In 1929, he joined the faculty of City College - a year after the move of the nation's third-oldest public high school from its old Howard Street home to its castle-like fortress at 33rd Street and The Alameda.

He remained there until retiring in 1968, and through the years happily instructed his A-course students in the beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet in iambic pentameter or the complicated intricacies of a James Joyce novel.

Mr. Pentz favored tweeds, much like an English schoolmaster, and when emphasizing a point, would punctuate the air with his glasses.

"It can safely be said that he was the greatest teacher in [City's] history. He had a brilliant mind and was greatly revered," said former Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman, a member of the Class of 1946 and longtime friend.

"He worked you hard and you loved it. He challenged you and made literature come alive. And because he made it so vivid, you naturally wanted to study," he said.

Judge Hammerman recalled classes that were filled with warmth and fascinating intellectual discussions.

"His classes were never pedantic. They were full of joy, affection, warmth and his sardonic wit," he said. "Mr. Chips could not hold a candle to Mr. Pentz."

A former Northwood resident, Mr. Pentz moved to St. Michaels in 1970 and was visited several times a year by his former students, who would take him to dinner. Despite his age, he displayed a quick intellectuality.

"When the waitress asked if he wanted dessert, he said, `No, thank you. I'm wrapt in measureless content,'" Judge Hammerman said. "At 99, and to be that sharp to respond with a quote from Shakespeare is really something."

Russell Baker, a journalist and host of Masterpiece Theater who graduated from City in 1942, said, "He was a wonderful teacher and what Mr. Pentz taught me was that it was OK if you're a man to cry.

"I grew up at a time when if you had both legs broken and your arms torn off, you didn't cry because you were a man. He said it was manly to cry in the presence of beauty," said Mr. Baker of Leesburg, Va.

"He was a sort of stout fellow, not fat, who kind of tapered outward. While a great character, he tolerated no horseplay in his classroom. He was mischievous and his sometime tyrannical manner kept you in awe of him. He was also a tough grader," he said.

"Sometimes he'd get out his grade book and start working down the list and go around the class while asking questions. And if I didn't know the answer, he'd say, `Take a zero, Baker.'"

Melvin J. Sykes, a Baltimore lawyer who graduated from City College in 1940 with a 98.6 average, then the highest in the school's history, laughingly explained, "He didn't think anyone ever deserved a 100."

"We absorbed everything he had to teach us and his classroom, there was no fooling around," Mr. Sykes recalled. "He never lost his temper. A raised eyebrow is more threatening than a wrap on the knuckles. He was a major influence in my life."

Mr. Pentz carefully and thoroughly read every student paper, carefully noting in red ink corrections and suggestions.

"Mr. Pentz was the single most inspiring teacher I had in high school," former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday.

Mr. Pentz kept busy in his retirement reading, collecting books and writing.

"He followed no special regimen except reading. That's what he liked to do most of all," said his daughter, Klara Barbara Bambling of Easton.

Mr. Pentz was 93 when he had his book, The Martinetti Family: The Story of a Nineteenth Century Pantomime Company, published in 1996 by Vantage Press. It told the story of a branch of his mother's family, a famed pantomime troupe that toured the world. He had written the entire manuscript in longhand, his daughter said.

He had been president of the Flag House and had helped bring the historic Navy ship Constellation from Newport, R.I., to Baltimore in 1955.

Mr. Pentz was a communicant of Christ Episcopal Church in St. Michaels.

Services will be private.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Pentz is survived by his wife of 72 years, the former Klara M. Nordenholz; two granddaughters; and three great-grandchildren.

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