Sidney N. Chernak, 96, helped ease racial strife as Southern principal

January 15, 2004|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Sidney N. Chernak, a longtime educator who helped ease racial strife after the integration of Baltimore's Southern High School in the 1950s, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia and heart failure. He was 96.

He was Southern's new principal in 1956 when hundreds of students stormed out of classes and threatened not to return in protest of the school's integration, which had begun two years earlier.

In a successful effort to bring calm, Mr. Chernak called on police to keep protesters off school property, then invited the students to return if they agreed to accept integration without further disruption. Most of the 264 students who walked out eventually returned.

"He felt integration was the correct thing, the right thing," said his son-in-law, Dr. Irvin Pollack of Baltimore. "More important, it was what was mandated by the school system and the government, and that's the way it should be. He made it easy for people who had trouble with it to adjust to it."

Mr. Chernak, who spent 41 years as a teacher and administrator in the city school system, worked for 63 years at the Jewish camps Airy and Louise in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. Over the years, he served as counselor at the boys' camp, Airy, and as executive director of it and the girls' camp, Louise.

Edwin Cohen, who worked with Mr. Chernak at the camps for 35 years and thought of him as "a father," recalled, "We used to go out recruiting counselors, and he'd be able to say, `You are going to touch lives, and you'll never know what you can do for people.'"

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Chernak graduated from City College in 1926, and two years later from what was then the State Normal School at Towson. While at Towson, he fell in love with fellow student Helen Patz. At his death, they had been married 72 years.

"The two were sweethearts until the very last day," said their daughter, Marlene Pollack of Baltimore.

In 1928, he went to work as an elementary school teacher. Later, he would become principal of a grade school and Samuel Gompers General Vocational School.

Along the way, he earned a bachelor's degree in education from the Johns Hopkins University and a master's in personnel from Columbia University in New York. He was a faculty member at Loyola College and the Johns Hopkins University.

By the time he was appointed principal of Southern in 1956, there were 150 African-American students among the 1,800 enrolled there. Just two years earlier, the enrollment of the first black students had touched off a student boycott.

When hundreds walked out of class that September, Mr. Chernak had police officers circle the school and order the students to return to classrooms immediately or leave the area. The city school superintendent, John H. Fischer, soon arrived and ordered the suspension of those still protesting.

But Mr. Chernak later said the suspended students could return if they arrived with a parent and had a conference with a teacher or administrator at any of 12 "interviewing stations" at the school. Mr. Chernak manned one of the tables.

"He was a very modest man, but he had a lot of self-confidence," said Mrs. Pollack. "When he saw a situation, he approached it from all sides. What was the correct thing to do on many levels, morally and in every aspect? I saw him do that over and over again with the integration, the support of his faculty, with concern for his children."

Southern then was known as a rough school where students were not expected to succeed, but Mr. Chernak, during his five years there, improved the athletic program and encouraged students to strive for more than their parents had achieved. The percentage of students applying to colleges steadily increased.

Mr. Chernak went on to become director of secondary education and assistant superintendent of city schools, retiring in 1969. He worked for the next 21 years as executive director of Camps Airy and Louise.

Among his many honors, Mr. Chernak received the Distinguished Alumni Award of Towson University and an honorary doctorate from Steed College in Tennessee. He was an active member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville. Camp Airy named a gym after him.

Services were held Tuesday.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Chernak is survived by a son, Theodore N. Chernak of Baltimore; nine grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

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