James F. Skarbek Jr., a retired Baltimore County public schools principal and the system's former coordinator of reading services, died of cancer Saturday at his Ellicott City home. He was 68.
Dr. Skarbek was born and raised in Forest Park and graduated in 1954 from Forest Park High School. He earned his bachelor's degree in education in 1958 from the Maryland State Teachers College at Towson. He earned a master's degree in administration in 1959 and his doctorate in 1963 from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Dr. Skarbek began teaching in Baltimore County public schools in 1959 at Westowne Elementary and was fond of joking that he had "spent his entire life in school."
In 1964, he was named vice principal of Bedford Elementary and in 1966 was promoted to principal of Chadwick Elementary.
He was principal of Lansdowne Elementary from 1968 to 1972, when he became coordinator of reading services for county schools. His last assignment was at Relay Elementary, as principal from 1991 until retiring in June.
"He loved teaching students how to read, and he knew it was an essential key to their academic success," said Robert Y. Dubel, a former county schools superintendent.
"He was a very versatile guy and headed our reading program for many years," Dr. Dubel said. "I always had to laugh whenever I heard every 10 years or so some expert talking about phonics and reading. Jim was emphasizing that 45 years ago. He was ahead of his time."
Dr. Skarbek was remembered for his easygoing and gentlemanly demeanor.
"Jim's real love was being principal, which brought him in contact with the students. He related sincerely to students. He knew their names and he knew their problems," Dr. Dubel said.
During funeral services Wednesday morning for Dr. Skarbek at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, a nearby schoolyard was filled with the sound of happy and squealing students out for a brief recess, Dr. Dubel said. "It made such a fitting and an appropriate background for Jim's funeral because he so loved children," he said.
Judith A. Cheek, a teacher who retired last year from Relay Elementary, admired the way he worked with pupils.
"He could deal with children in a quiet and helpful manner. And he always showed his concern for the child," Miss Cheek said. "He also had great rapport with everyone from custodians and secretaries to teachers and parents, as was evidenced by the huge turnout at his funeral and lack of dry eyes."
In recognition of his love of the printed word and children, the school had planned to name its library after Dr. Skarbek.
"We were hoping he'd be able to come for the renaming of the library but unfortunately that didn't happen. We're planning a ceremony perhaps next spring," said Paula C. Rees, who succeeded him as principal at Relay. "He loved walking the halls at Relay and talking to the children, and they liked coming into his office and reading to him."
Dr. Skarbek liked sailing the Severn River aboard the J-4, a 12-foot Wesort sailboat that he had built in 1964 in his basement. He was an avid collector of vintage Lionel electric trains, which he operated on an elaborate basement layout.
"His collection ranged from 1910 to 2004, and included several trains from his childhood that he still liked to run," said a son, Jeffrey S. Skarbek of Round Lake Park, Ill. "His grandchildren gave him the name of Choo-Choo Pop-Pop."
Survivors also include his wife of 43 years, the former Jacqueline Owens, a retired Social Security Administration computer analyst; another son, James F. Skarbek III of Springfield, Va.; and two grandchildren.