Paul Dirk Vandenberg, 48, principal of Southern High in Anne Arundel

March 09, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County principal Paul Dirk Vandenberg, who was praised for fostering a sense of safety and community at Southern High School, died yesterday morning of complications from pancreatitis at Anne Arundel Medical Center. The Annapolis resident was 48.

Colleagues and students mourned his death, which was announced a few hours after classes began at the Harwood school.

"We're really going to miss him," said Carol A. Thornburg, who has been acting principal since Mr. Vandenberg was hospitalized in January. "He was a friend to the kids, to the staff, to the community."

Mr. Vandenberg, a Cumberland native, received bachelor's and master's degrees from Frostburg State College in the late 1970s. He began his career in 1979 as a social studies teacher at Southern High. In 1987, he was honored as Anne Arundel County's Teacher of the Year. He later served as an assistant principal at Old Mill High and as principal of Arundel High and Brooklyn Park Middle schools.

When Southern's principal retired in 2000 after the school made newspaper headlines because of tensions between white and black students, Mr. Vandenberg applied for the job.

In an interview last spring, he said his fondness for the school and South County community had stayed with him over the years. "I wanted to come back and build up the self-confidence of the kids and the school's reputation," Mr. Vandenberg told The Sun.

Students and teachers credit him for improving the atmosphere at the 1,200-student school. Shortly after his arrival, Mr. Vandenberg identified 67 students who had been responsible for most of the disruptions and made them sign behavior contracts. He also gave teachers and students more opportunities to get to know one another, and he encouraged parents and church leaders to become involved.

Grateful students and community members filled his office over the years with stuffed toys and figurines of bulldogs, the school's mascot.

Mr. Vandenberg was known among his fellow principals as energetic and outspoken. "If he had opinions, he didn't mind sharing them," recalled schools Deputy Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson.

Staff members said he was a good boss.

"He gave you the expectations of what he needed done, and he trusted us enough to carry on what he wanted done," Ms. Thornburg said.

Kinsey Harvey, a student who graduated last spring, said she was shocked and saddened by Mr. Vandenberg's death.

"He changed [the school] a great deal for the better," said Ms. Harvey, a freshman at Howard University. "He brought with him a stability and just a better system."

Mr. Vandenberg was an avid bicyclist who rode the 184-mile length of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal five years ago. He also taught spinning, or indoor cycling, classes at two health clubs in Annapolis, and often encouraged friends and colleagues to join.

Mr. Vandenberg also loved to cook family dinners for his father, brother and sister, all of whom live in Cumberland.

Mary Jo Wolters, his sister, said he was in high spirits in the days before his death, surrounded in his hospital room by cards and posters made by his students. "His career was so important to him," Mrs. Wolters said. "His students were his second family."

Plans for services were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to his sister, Mr. Vandenberg is survived by his father, Dirk Vandenberg, and brother, Steve Vandenberg.

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