Winfrey returns to Baltimore, on a mission

At fundraiser, she criticizes city schools

April 11, 2006|By NICOLE FULLER | NICOLE FULLER,SUN REPORTER

In a rare Baltimore appearance last night, Oprah Winfrey helped raise more than $1.4 million for academic scholarships at a prominent Baltimore Jewish day school, while calling the condition of the city's public school system "devastating."

"I believe that education is freedom, and I'm here to support the wonderful work you do," Winfrey told a crowd of about 2,400 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, at a scholarship fundraiser for the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. She urged those in the audience to volunteer to help improve education.

Winfrey, a talk show host and philanthropist who said she is opening a school in South Africa, heralded the quality of education at Beth Tfiloh, while criticizing the city's public schools.

Last month, the state announced plans to seize 11 Baltimore schools because of dismal test results, though the move was criticized by some as an election-year political ploy. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich are among those battling for the governor's seat in the next election.

"We're standing in a city where the dropout rate is atrocious for young black males," Winfrey said. "It's 76 percent. That should make you gasp."

Later, Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the mayor, responded to Winfrey's comments:

"We understand the challenges that our school system faces, and the school system is working to address those challenges." Guillory said progress is being made.

Winfrey melded her very serious comments ranging from the importance of prayer, her work to help educate African children orphaned by AIDS, and her own ability to transcend her humble beginnings with a mix of quips. They ranged from comments on her extensive collection of expensive shoes to her gratitude to Baltimoreans, who she said loved her when she was "fat and black and had an Afro."

In her 50-minute address, Winfrey, who worked for six years at WJZ in Baltimore before launching her popular talk show, expressed an appreciation for the city she called her "home."

"Baltimore, I just ... walking through the Harbor today and going back to WJZ," she said. "It is a miracle what has happened to me in my life, and I want to thank you all for inviting me here tonight because you can go home again."

Winfrey accepted the invitation to speak at the fundraiser after five years of begging from Richard Sher, her former co-host on the WJZ program People are Talking, he said. Finally, a lengthy e-mail did the trick.

"She writes, `OK, I'm not doing the Grammys, I'm not doing the Oscars, but praise the Lord, I'm doing Beth Tfiloh,'" Sher, who introduced Winfrey, told the crowd. Sher is a friend of Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, the school's dean.

The excitement over Winfrey was palpable.

David Portnoy, principal of Beth Tfiloh's high school, said Winfrey's appearance was "unbelievable."

"We're very grateful," Portnoy said. "She doesn't do things like this as a rule, but when she heard it was scholarships for kids to go to school ... "

Security was tight for one of the world's best-known women. Reporters and photographers were escorted to their seats by Baltimore police officers, who remained on watch. Photographers were allowed to take photographs and film the celebrity talk-show host only for the first 10 minutes of her speech.

Police spokeswoman Nicole Monroe called the security measures "unusual" but said: "Sometimes you have aggressive reporters who don't abide by the rules, so she doesn't want to look up in her dressing room and find someone there. If that's the worst thing we have to protect her from, then it will be a great night."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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