Robert Pack Diggs, 92, Dunbar principal

January 13, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert Pack Diggs, a respected and influential educator who held positions as principal of Dunbar High School and superintendent of curriculum development in Baltimore's public schools, died of cardiac arrest Thursday at Northwest Hospital Center. He was 92.

Mr. Diggs began his career with the city Department of Education in 1939, teaching math and science. He was named assistant principal at Dunbar in 1955, and a year later was promoted to principal.

"He was the first principal I ever got to know when I went to Dunbar. He was very committed to getting young people to learn and take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. And he was an advocate of a strong academic discipline," said Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

"He also believed in his students and knew every one of us," Judge Bell said. "He thought of all of us as being members of his family. He wanted us to succeed and was always proud of us."

Judge Bell described him as a "drum-beater for his policies and programs" and a "very contemplative person" who was upbeat. "He was, in no uncertain terms, not opposed to telling you when you didn't meet his expectations. He set goals and pushed hard. And at the end, you were better for it."

Dr. Elijah Saunders, a cardiologist who heads the division of hypertension at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, was a student of Mr. Diggs when he was teaching math and science at the former Booker T. Washington Junior High.

"I suspect that it was during those years I began thinking about being a doctor, and he let me know that I had the capacity and ability to go into medicine," said Dr. Saunders, who later became Mr. Diggs' physician. "He loved coming into my waiting room and telling all the patients that he had been my teacher."

After leaving Dunbar in 1969, Mr. Diggs was superintendent of curriculum development until retiring in 1973.

He was the first African-American to serve as president of the Principals Association of Baltimore and was a former president of Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association. He was also a longtime member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and was a charter member of the Baltimore chapter of the Guardsmen civic and social club.

The son of a Baptist minister and a teacher, Mr. Diggs was born in Lynchburg, Va. He moved to Baltimore with his family in 1917, when his father was named pastor of Trinity Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue. His mother, the first woman to graduate from Virginia Union University in Richmond, taught school.

Mr. Diggs, who was known as Pack, was raised in Northwest Baltimore and graduated in 1927 from Frederick Douglass High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from West Virginia State College in 1931 and a master's in secondary education from New York University in 1945. He also held professional certificates from the Johns Hopkins University and what is now Morgan State University.

He was a lively conversationalist who enjoyed reading and traveling, and made his home for more than 40 years on North Payson Street.

He was married for 55 years to the former Cleo Ashby, also a Baltimore educator, who died in 1994.

Mr. Diggs was a longtime communicant and former vestryman of St. James Episcopal Church, Lafayette and Arlington avenues, where services will be held at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.

He is survived by his daughter, Lynn Robinson of Randallstown; a sister, Winifred Shepherd of Baltimore; a granddaughter; and a great-grandson.

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