A `giant' who raised the bar for city schools

As board chairman, he oversaw progress

Dr. J. Tyson Tildon 1931-2006


Dr. J. Tyson Tildon, whose low tolerance for mediocrity propelled him to the leadership of the city's school board through often contentious reform, died of cancer yesterday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Homeland resident was 74.

A neuroscientist who studied the regulation of energy metabolism, he was remembered as an academic traditionalist who believed that the city had the power to cure its ills while insisting that Baltimore's public school students learn a day's classwork.

Friends said he refused to allow race to influence the school board's decisions and felt that students should be promoted only when they had mastered their courses.

"He was one of Baltimore's great unsung heroes," former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "In a sense, he gave his gifts to all of us through his service to education. And he could pick talent."

Mr. Schmoke said Dr. Tildon "majorly" assisted him by heading the city's Civil Service Commission, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's trustees and the city's Board of School Commissioners.

"He was chairman of the school board at an extremely difficult time," Mr. Schmoke said. "He worked under pressure from the unions and the advocates of special education."

Dr. Tildon, an intellectual who often discussed jazz, poetry and international events, rarely shied away from speaking his mind, friends said.

A short man with a strong jaw and penetrating eyes, Dr. Tildon regularly dressed down school system staff members during televised school board meetings when he thought they were making excuses or obscuring facts.

`A giant'

During a school board meeting last night, there was a gasp from the audience when his death was announced. After a moment of silence, Brian D. Morris, the board's president, called Dr. Tildon "a giant" and said, "We all sit on his shoulders."

When the Enoch Pratt Free Library was seeking a new director in 1993, Dr. Tildon led the search committee and recruited Carla D. Hayden to Baltimore.

"He was an optimist about the city and what could be done," Dr. Hayden said yesterday. "He thought of education in its broadest sense, formal and informal, and believed that if people had open minds and intellectual curiosity, they could accomplish most everything."

Appointed to the school board post in May 1997 by Mayor Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Dr. Tildon was a part of a sweeping reorganization that included the dismissal of the old board and superintendent.

The nine board members became remarkably close over the years as they tried to set a new course for the system. After an era during which the board and staff members had made excuses for the poor achievement of the city's schoolchildren, Dr. Tildon set the bar high.

Family and board members remember his saying, "We will not allow the toxicity of low expectations." Several of them broke down in tears when told about his death yesterday, even though they were aware that he was dying of cancer.

"He was one of the finest human beings I have ever known," said Bonnie S. Copeland, who was vice chairwoman of the board with Dr. Tildon and is now the system's chief executive officer. "He cared deeply about the city's children. He had such high expectations for them. Failure was never an option."

"He was a giant of a man," said former board member Sam Stringfield. "He was a man of intelligence and thoughtfulness. ... We often did things under Tyson's leadership that weren't popular but were for the good of the children."

Dr. Tildon was born in Baltimore and raised on Carrollton Avenue. When he graduated second in his junior high school class, he vowed to do better. When he received his Frederick Douglass High School diploma in 1950, he was class valedictorian.

He earned a chemistry degree from Morgan State University and a doctorate in biochemistry from the Johns Hopkins University. He spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at the Institute de Biologie Physico-Chimique in Paris.

`Brilliant student'

"He was a brilliant student," said his brother, Charles Tildon, a retired Community College of Baltimore president. "As our lives shaped into adulthood. After my wife, he became my best friend. We talked every day."

Dr. Tildon did postdoctoral work at Brandeis University and joined the Goucher College faculty in 1967.

In 1968, the University of Maryland recruited him to its department of pediatrics. where he taught and conducted research until he retired in 2000. His final post was associate dean for research in graduate studies at the UM School of Medicine.

"Dr. Tildon took great delight in analyzing scientific data and formulating new hypotheses from the data, even when it seemed contrary to the initial anticipated outcome," said a colleague, Dr. H. Ronald Zielke. "He never shied away from challenging dogma in the light of new scientific findings."

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