Audrey Jane Cheek, a retired educator who was the first woman in Baltimore County to head a public high school, died Friday of cancer at her Reisterstown home. She was 69.
Miss Cheek, named in 1983 as principal of Lansdowne High School, was born and raised in Catonsville. After graduating from Catonsville High School in 1949, she earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1953.
She also held a master's degree from Loyola College in school administration and another from the Johns Hopkins University in liberal arts.
Miss Cheek was working as a chemist for the Gunther Brewing Co. and Pemco Corp. when she left to teach laboratory sessions at Catonsville Community College in the late 1950s.
In 1960, she began teaching chemistry at Ridgely Junior and Dulaney Senior High schools, where she later was science department chairwoman. In 1972, she was promoted to Baltimore County's acting supervisor of secondary science.
"It was a one-year position," she told The Sun in a 1991 interview, "and then I was ready to go back to being a department head."
Her next assignment took her to Deer Park Junior High School, and after a year, she was named principal of Sudbrook Junior High School in 1974.
In 1977, she was appointed principal of Arbutus Junior High School. She took a job six years later as principal of Lansdowne High School.
Miss Cheek said there was nothing extraordinary about becoming the first woman in the history of Baltimore County public schools to serve as a high school principal.
"Our superintendent says that other women were offered high school [principal] jobs" before she was," she said in the interview. "It's just a lot of work. It's many nights out. ... I just think I was the first one, that's all."
Patsy J. Holmes, who succeeded her as principal at Lansdowne and is now coordinator of safe and drug-free schools for Baltimore County, regarded Miss Cheek as a role model.
"She paved the way for all the other female principals that followed," Ms. Holmes said.
"She was a mentor and taught me how to be an administrator. She said that each child, faculty member and family had to be looked at holistically in relation to the community at large."
Virginia Wagstaff, former assistant principal at Dulaney Senior High School, longtime friend, and next-door neighbor for 35 years, described her as an "extremely intelligent, competent, can-do type of person."
"When you're a high school principal, you have to work 12-hour days and weekends. That's just the way it is," she said. "She was very forceful and direct when it came to running a school. When she saw problems, she quickly confronted them."
Robert T. Hamilton, assistant principal at Hereford High School, who worked with Miss Cheek at Lansdowne, recalled his former boss as a tough but caring leader.
"Audrey was the best, the toughest, the brightest and most caring leader a school could have," he said.
"She always ran a tight ship and was self-reliant. She was an extremely energetic and innovative leader who urged both faculty and students to be the best that they could be."
He also said that Miss Cheek enjoyed long walks through the Lansdowne community, during which she solicited ideas and suggestions from residents.
"She cared very much for the community and was very proud of her school. Her goal was to provide a safe environment where students could achieve. She firmly believed that there was no student who couldn't learn if provided with the right atmosphere," Mr. Hamilton said.
When asked upon her retirement in 1991 what she would miss most about her job, Miss Cheek jokingly replied: "The copy machine."
Turning more serious, she said, "There are interesting adults here. And I'll miss being around the kids because I think that keeps you young. They're up to date."
Miss Cheek was an avid opera fan and frequently attended performances of the Baltimore Opera Co. and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Every Saturday afternoon during the opera season, she listened to the Met radio broadcasts.
She also enjoyed attending Center Stage, Arena Stage and the Folger Theater in Washington. She also attended theater performances in New York and London.
Miss Cheek was an accomplished woodworker and metal worker. She made her own wine, collected stamps that featured opera stars and often shopped at flea markets. She also enjoyed camping.
"She was always so full of living that she swept you along with her," Miss Wagstaff said.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Church, 7474 Washington Blvd., Elkridge.
Miss Cheek is survived by a brother, Thomas R. Cheek, and a sister, Judith A. Cheek, both of Catonsville; and several nephews and nieces.
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