George L. Small, 81, helped start school for city pupils in Africa

September 19, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

George L. Small, a philanthropist who founded a wildlife preserve in Kenya and helped set up an alternative school there for at-risk Baltimore pupils, died Monday at his Roland Park home from complications of a brain tumor. He was 81.

From 1945 to 1976, Mr. Small ran his family's York, Pa.-based food distribution business, P.A. & Small Co. The business had been in his family from the 1700s, until it merged with another company in 1976.

The real love of his life was the outdoors. He was an avid fisherman and canoeist who, in 1969, inherited from his brother a 50,000-acre, 20-mile-long ranch in Kenya called Mpala.

He never fenced the land, allowing it to become home to one of the largest elephant herds in Kenya, according to his friend and lawyer, Jeffrey K. Gonya.

Mr. Small also allowed the British army to train on the land, a favor for which Queen Elizabeth II named him an honorary commander of the British Empire.

In 1996, Mr. Small helped find a location on a farm near his ranch for the Baraka School for troubled Baltimore public school students, said Kate Walsh, Baraka's former executive director. The Abell Foundation paid about $600,000 to build the school, which provides alternative education for about 17 middle-schoolers a year.

"If we didn't have Mr. Small's help, it would never have happened -- he found us the land and persuaded us to go to that part of Africa," Ms. Walsh said.

The school, with funding from the city and foundation, continues to provide a life-altering educational environment for students, despite a threat of closing in 2000 because of financial problems, according to its supporters.

A native of York, Mr. Small grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Gilman School in 1939 and Princeton University in 1943.

He served in the Army during World War II, then took over as president of the family business, which distributed food to supermarkets throughout the mid-Atlantic region, according to Mr. Gonya.

Mr. Small, who was white, helped an African-American businessman, Charles Thurgood Burns, a cousin of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, to found the Super Pride supermarket chain in 1970, Mr. Gonya said. Super Pride became the largest black-owned grocery store chain in the United States.

He loved fishing and hunting in Canada, and spent much time photographing the wildlife on his ranch in Africa.

In order to preserve the wildlife on his land, he founded the Mpala Wildlife Foundation in 1989. He worked with the Smithsonian Institution, Princeton University and the Kenya Wildlife Service to develop the Mpala Research Center on his land in 1993.

Mr. Small had no immediate survivors. Services will be private.

Memorial donations may be made to Mpala Wildlife Foundation, c/o Jeffrey K. Gonya, Suite 1800, 2 Hopkins Plaza, Baltimore 21210.

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