William J. Vanko, 77, teacher and nature photographer


William J. Vanko, a veteran Kenwood High School science teacher and nature photographer, died of a brain tumor Friday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. The longtime Glen Arm resident was 77.

Mr. Vanko was born and raised in East Baltimore, where his father owned and operated Belg, The Old Capmaker, an Eastern Avenue haberdashery. He was a 1946 graduate of Patterson Park High School, where he served as class president.

"He was a born leader who inspired not only his students but those who came in contact with him," said Rae Sokolow Rosen, a Patterson classmate and longtime friend.

Mr. Vanko earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1950 from the University of Maryland, College Park, and subsequently earned master's degrees there and at what is now Morgan State University.

After serving in the Air Force as a staff sergeant from 1951 to 1955, Mr. Vanko began his teaching career at what is now Stemmers Run Middle School and later at Towson High School. In the late 1950s, he began teaching chemistry at Kenwood and remained on the faculty for nearly 30 years until retiring in the 1980s.

During the late 1980s, Mr. Vanko was a lecturer for the Baltimore County Health Department, speaking to community groups about AIDS and rabies.

"In a tough high school environment, his students excelled. He was an influential teacher of students who later became doctors, nurses, judges, elected officials, military and business leaders, and overall good family people," said Jim Poffel, a former student and retired Hewlett-Packard regional sales manager.

"During the 10th grade, as some males will attest, staying focused on schoolwork is very hard to do. Mr. Vanko was a master of motivation and the science of teaching. I personally knew many students who looked forward to his classes," he said.

Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions and was a member of Kenwood's Class of 1973, studied chemistry under Mr. Vanko.

"He was a very friendly and avuncular presence who easily communicated with his students. There was always an appropriate give and take, and at the same time he didn't have to resort to being a pal with them," Mr. Jones, said yesterday.

"Mr. Vanko was a very level-headed teacher who was popular not just with me, but with all of the students. He was the kind of teacher who easily spurred a kid's interest in science," he said.

Mr. Jones recalled hearing from Mr. Vanko after completing his space missions. "He enjoyed staying in touch with his students.

"He connected with students and was very inspiring," said Dennis F. Rasmussen, a 1965 Kenwood graduate and a former Baltimore County executive and state senator. "His classes were much more than just facts and figures. He was more than just a teacher. He tried to give students direction in life."

Mr. Poffel recalled how he and Mr. Vanko were reunited in 2001. Mr. Poffel, who had moved to Glen Arm, walked to his mailbox one day and bumped into Mr. Vanko, who lived across the street.

"He remembered me," Mr. Poffel said.

He added: "Those students who knew Mr. Vanko were better people because of his influence, guidance and good heart. He was one of the few teachers at Kenwood who changed my compass for the better."

Mr. Vanko enjoyed painting and nature photography and had taken several trips to the Everglades with his son, William D. Vanko, a WBAL-AM radio news anchor who lives in Ellicott City.

"We stayed in a two-bit motel in Homestead, Fla., and drove into the Everglades, where we photographed alligators, snakes and even snails on a tree," the son said. "When we got home, the snail pictures were out of focus, and I asked him what happened. He said, `They moved."'

A fan and grower of various types of cacti, Mr. Vanko was a former treasurer of the Cactus and Succulent Society of Maryland.

He was a communicant of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, 13305 Long Green Pike in Hydes, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today.

Also surviving are his high school sweetheart and wife of 49 years, the former Dorothy DiSante; two daughters, Sharon M. Vanko of Finksburg and Andrea M. "Andi" Vanko of Mount Washington; and three grandsons.


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