Vernon S. Vavrina, a retired city public schools deputy superintendent who helped establish Baltimore's first school for unwed mothers, died of cancer Sunday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. A resident of Oak Crest Village for the past eight years, he formerly lived in Pikesville. He was 90.
Dr. Vavrina began teaching in 1931 and was paid $120 a month. Assigned to Westport Elementary School in the southern section of the city, where several glass factories had closed because of the Depression, he later recounted his early experiences:
"I vividly recall the children coming to school in hunger," he said in a 1975 Sun interview. "Children with rosy cheeks just became grayish-looking as a result of eating soup beans, rice and potatoes. I also recall the impetigo that came as a result of skin infection."
He then became history department head at Forest Park High School and was later supervisor of that subject for the city system. In 1953, he was named principal of Canton's Fortview Junior High School and two years later held the same position at Roland Park Elementary and Junior High School.
"He set an example for what an administrator should be," said Edward Biller, retired city social studies supervisor. "He never seemed to get overly excited, yet he often took the right course."
About 35 years ago, Dr. Vavrina saw the need for a school for pregnant girls who had been forced to leave the system. The school, originally at Fayette and Greene streets in downtown Baltimore, is now the Laurence G. Paquin Middle and High School.
"He was very proud of this accomplishment. He wanted the mothers to be well-educated," said his daughter, Trudy Collier of Owings Mills. "This was at a time when the kids were being told to leave school, to go home and have their babies, then return to school. He knew this would not happen."
He had a gift for understated leadership, friends said.
"He had the secret of dealing with people. He was very much the gentle disciple rather than the corporate executive," said Monsignor Nicholas Amato, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church and former secretary of education for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where Dr. Vavrina served as president of the Board of Christian Formation for many years.
Monsignor Amato recalled times when Dr. Vavrino faced a challenge.
"He'd be taking out a half sheet of paper and jotting down a few steps, sharing his thoughts about the personality involved, encouraging me to remember the goal, and saying, always, `Stick to your guns,'" Monsignor Amato said. "He could be boiling inside, yet on his face there'd be a gentle smile, an easy head nod and a wink of an eye."
Dr. Vavrina was named the city school system's deputy superintendent in 1973, after serving in numerous posts, including director of junior and senior high schools. He retired in 1975.
"In the system, he was a peacemaker and a compromiser," said Thomas R. Foster, a retired city public schools deputy superintendent. "He was the perfect gentleman, sensitive and discreet."
Born in Baltimore and raised on North Milton Avenue, he was a 1929 graduate of City College and earned a teaching diploma from what was then the State Normal School in Towson at age 18. He earned a bachelor of science, master's in education and certificate in advanced study from the Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from Catholic University of America.
In the mid-1960s, he was the second chairman of the Maryland-Rio de Janeiro State Partners Alliance, an educational exchange group. Dr. Vavrina taught himself Portuguese as part of his duties.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Oak Crest Village chapel.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Gertrude Smearman; a son, Vernon S. Vavrina Jr. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; two sisters, Eleanor Klein of Towson and Rosalie Dzbinski of Bel Air; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.