A typical Friday ended in tragedy

Grieving: Faculty at St. Paul's School share memories of their colleague, who was killed at a Towson mall.

February 21, 2005|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

His last day, Friday, was typically frenetic, but William A. Bassett was characteristically unperturbed.

As always, Bassett, the bow-tied dean of faculty at the prestigious St. Paul's School, moved easily from advising parents to planning science lessons and conferring with a college admissions counselor, colleagues recalled.

"I just remember him saying he had to get out to the airport," said Edward J. Brady, who worked with Bassett on the course curriculum until his fellow science teacher left to drive a guest lecturer back to the airport.

They were supposed to meet several hours later for dinner with their wives. "I figured I would see him again soon," Brady said.

As police probed Bassett's shooting death early that night at Towson Town Center mall, colleagues recalled yesterday their last, all-too-typical moments with the 58-year-old father of two, who didn't say he was going to the mall but often shopped for bargains at Nordstrom.

The friends struggled to balance their warm memories of the popular, self-effacing educator with the grim, inexplicable news of his killing.

"I'm still, probably like everyone else, in a state of utter shock," said Robert W. Hallett, St. Paul's headmaster from 1985 to 2002, and a longtime friend. "How do you explain something like this? You certainly cannot."

The chapel at St. Paul's, in Brooklandville, overflowed with more than 450 mourners attending a tearful prayer service in Bassett's memory.

`There's no sense to it'

"Just the feeling that someone so dear and so wonderful has been taken from all of us - there's no sense to it," Joan Hurley, a Spanish teacher who worked with Bassett for 11 years, said afterward.

St. Paul's, an Episcopal school with 864 students, has scheduled a viewing from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow in the chapel. On Wednesday at 2 p.m., there will be a public memorial service at Old St. Paul's Church at Charles and Saratoga streets.

Baltimore County police said yesterday that they had nothing new to report on the shooting, the second killing at the mall since 2002.

At Bassett's home in Roland Park, a woman who answered the door said his wife, Susan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, was too distraught to talk.

"She's not up to talking right now," said the woman, who identified herself as Susan Bassett's sister.

With his wire-rimmed glasses and tweed jackets, Bassett evoked a professorial air but was far from the aloof intellectual stereotype.

He was a record-setting runner at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he studied zoology. He kept up with running and later became an avid collector of antiques.

After teaching at a private school in Jacksonville, Fla., Bassett wanted to move closer to his family in the Philadelphia area. He taught in Severna Park and then worked for 31 years at St. Paul's, including a four-year stint as principal of the upper school.

As dean of faculty, Bassett's duties included hiring and teacher training. But colleagues said he did more than that, warmly welcoming new hires with a cocktail, then serving as a confidant for issues professional and personal.

When Jim Miller considered adopting a child three years ago, "Bill was the first person I went to for advice," the English teacher recalled. Bassett adopted his son, Graham, a college junior, and daughter, Julia, a high school senior, from El Salvador.

Miller and other teachers recalled Bassett sharing paint samples so they could pick the right shade to color their houses.

"He knew the particulars of my life - what classes I was taking, what the status of my relationship was. He always asked," said David Metcalf, a history teacher who also works in the admissions office.

At the mall in Towson, a man was fatally stabbed in a parking lot three years ago. In recent months, there have been at least two robberies at the mall.

Police said Bassett was found dead about 8 p.m. Friday on the fifth floor of the garage on the mall's south side, near the entrance to Nordstrom. His car was parked nearby.

While Bassett didn't tell any of the 10 friends and colleagues who were interviewed yesterday of his plans to visit the mall that night, none expressed surprise that the natty dresser and inveterate bargain hunter would stop there.

"That was a regular stop - Nordstrom's Rack," said Tom Reid, the headmaster of St. Paul's, who called Bassett's death a "great loss."

The day was a busy one for Bassett, especially because teachers were receiving in-service training that he had organized, colleagues said. At 7:15 a.m., he counseled a student and parents. Later, he kicked off the teacher training with introductory remarks.

Brady, the science department chairman who, like Bassett, taught an advanced course in environmental science, recalled meeting with him several times throughout the day as they merged lesson plans for a course curriculum that other teachers could use.

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