Joshua R. Wheeler, 88, superintendent of Balto. Co. schools

October 16, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Joshua R. Wheeler, a former Baltimore County superintendent of schools who was known for progressive policies during his 40 years as an educator, died of pneumonia Monday at Blakehurst Retirement Community. He was 88.

"Josh Wheeler during his long career was a role model for the system moving forward. He was an advocate of racial equality and hated anything that was the least bit discriminatory," said Robert Y. Dubel who succeeded him as superintendent in 1976.

Mr. Wheeler was born and spent his early years on his father's 200-acre Pot Spring Road farm in Timonium, and was a teen-ager when the family moved to Lutherville.

He was a 1932 graduate of Towson High School and earned his bachelor's degree in 1936 from what was then the Towson Normal School. He earned his master's degree in 1947 from Columbia University.

He began his teaching career at Baltimore Highlands Elementary School, and later taught at Carroll Manor Elementary before being named vice principal at Towson Elementary. In 1939, he was named principal at Hebbville Elementary -- and also taught there.

Mr. Wheeler interrupted his career by enlisting in the Army Air Forces after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. Two years later, he was sent to England as a supply and materials officer with the 379th Heavy Bombardment Group. He was later promoted to ground executive officer of a B-17 Flying Fortress Group.

He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Bronze Star, the citation of which read that he was "instrumental in helping his unit achieve one of the most efficient engineering and combat records in the Eighth Air Force."

Returning to the county, he was named principal of Dundalk Elementary in 1946 -- and met his future wife, Jane Erb, who had become the school's nurse after serving as an Army nurse in the war. They were married from 1947 until her death in 1973, and made their home for many of those years in Timonium.

From 1949 until 1960, he was principal of both Stemmers Run Junior High and Kenwood High School. In 1960, he was named the system's assistant superintendent and in 1967 assistant first deputy superintendent. When he was appointed superintendent in 1970, Baltimore County's school system was the state's third-largest, with 138,000 students and 7,000 teachers.

While the genial and white-haired Mr. Wheeler was known for being a straight-forward and practical administrator, it was not his intention to be merely a "rubber stamp" for the school board, he told The Evening Sun in 1970.

An essential theme during his tenure as superintendent was overseeing the reshaping of the county's educational program to accept all students, including special education students, and to design programs that made it possible for all to obtain a high school diploma.

He won praise from educators across the state for his efforts in recruiting black teachers. In 1971, he became the first superintendent in the county to have an African-American administrator on his staff.

"He became a tremendous advocate for integration, and that began back in 1954 during the days of the dual-school system. And he was outspoken in his support for its dismantling," Dr. Dubel said. "He also did a great deal to recruit minority teachers and placed a great deal of emphasis on minority education. He was way ahead of his time."

In 1972, he arranged for undercover agents at Towson and Kenwood high schools to ferret out drug dealers -- a move that brought criticism from American Civil Liberties Union but resulted in the arrest of several drug traffickers.

When the Gideons proposed distributing free copies of the Bible to students, Mr. Wheeler intervened, claiming it would be "inappropriate for the county to participate" in such a program, in light of Supreme Court decisions including the Baltimore case brought by Madalyn Murray O'Hair that banned prayer in public schools.

He did not shrink from clashing with politicians, as evidenced by his opposition to then-County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis' proposal that the executive have a hand in the school board's naming of the system's superintendent.

"He was one in a string of strong superintendents, and while I didn't always agree with him, I knew that he was very capable in making the school system one of the very best in the state and the nation," Mr. Venetoulis said yesterday.

"He never ever hesitated to take on the politicians in public. So, I learned how to deal with him privately," Mr. Venetoulis said with a laugh. "I always had the greatest respect for Josh and what he tried to do. People everywhere had enormous respect for him."

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