April 1, 2017
An era of Friends School’s history came to an end on Thursday with the passing of Dr. W. Byron Forbush II. A 1947 graduate of Friends, Byron served with single-minded devotion as the Headmaster of our school from 1960 through 1998. (His father, Bliss Forbush, Sr., preceded him as Headmaster from 1943 until 1960.) Rarely has any institution been as synonymous with its leader as Friends was with Byron during those years, a phenomenon that was due as much to his vigorous and highly successful efforts on behalf of the school as to the sheer marvel of his longevity in his role. All of us who had the pleasure of knowing Byron will remember him as a larger-than-life figure animated above all else by his two great loves; his family and Friends School of Baltimore.
The full range of national developments encompassed by Byron’s extraordinary 38-year tenure - which began, it is worth remembering, during the Eisenhower administration – boggles the mind. As the ripples from the events of these years inevitably roiled Friends School, Byron deftly navigated the changing landscape with unfailing wisdom and equanimity.
Just within the confines of our campus, the changes in the dynamics of school life that Byron experienced between 1960 and 1998 are difficult to imagine, and were surely far more difficult to manage. I’ve heard many alumni describe the infamous “tie revolt Collection” staged by the male students of the 1970’s and the subsequent “jumper revolution” by their female counterparts a few years later. The lettuce-boycott protests outside Friends Board meetings (legend has it that Trustees were pelted with hurled lettuce leaves) and other instances of campus upheaval undoubtedly called for all Byron’s patience and diplomacy, qualities that he demonstrated in remarkable measure over his 38 years as Headmaster. In hindsight, though, Byron’s eager embrace of the opportunities that presented themselves during this turbulent era was even more impressive than his endurance in the face of its challenges.
Byron took on the leadership of Friends School a mere five years after it had integrated (and then only at the youngest grades). And yet, during his time as Headmaster, he helped to found the BEST program to make Baltimore’s independent schools more accessible to African-American students, established an internship for young faculty of color to enhance the diversity of the professional community, led the faculty and staff through extensive professional development in multiculturalism, oversaw a significant and highly intentional increase in the enrollment of students of color, and worked diligently to help make the Friends community one where all its students, families, and employees felt welcomed and honored each day. Byron himself would have been the first to admit that the school’s progress towards these goals during his tenure was imperfect and incomplete (as it remains today), but that progress nonetheless remained a top priority for him throughout his extraordinary career.
And while Byron came of age in a time of typewriters and mimeographs, he eagerly accepted the challenge of leading Friends School into the digital age. One of the great achievements of the final years of his career involved leading the highly successful “Connect Friends” campaign that raised the funds necessary to bring internet access to our classrooms. In this instance, as in so many others during his career, Byron held himself and the school to the highest standards, insisting that Friends be at the forefront of innovation in our field, in order to provide its students with an education that would equip them to make a difference in the world beyond our campus.
I can personally attest that the high regard in which Byron was held by the members of our community was echoed in the wider professional world of his colleagues. Assuming my role as Head almost a decade after Byron’s retirement, nearly every first encounter I had with a fellow school leader brought forth a fond reminiscence of their experiences with Byron. Within the Friends Council on Education, the organization of Quaker schools from across America, Byron’s status was nothing short of legendary. He attended the annual spring gathering of Heads exactly 50 years in a row. He was one of the founders of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS), and still holds the distinction of having led more school evaluations for that organization than anyone else; by a margin that makes his record approximately as secure as Cal Ripken’s. And he was a cornerstone of the Baltimore Senate, a collection of school leaders that preceded AIMS and still brings colleagues from local schools together once a year. The relationships that Byron established through these and other professional organizations were characterized by the generosity and vigor of his friendship and by his unfailing eagerness to help other schools and school leaders do their work more successfully. His loss will be deeply felt by his scores of friends and admirers in our professional community.
As lengthy as this letter may be, I'm conscious of having failed to do anything like justice to Byron as an educator and a person. (I have not, for example, made any mention of his lengthy and productive tenure as the Chair of the Board of the Sheppard-Pratt Health System, one of the great passions of his life beyond Friends School.) For those wishing to take a deeper dive into Byron’s many achievements as Headmaster, you can click on this link to a special edition of Collection magazine from the Spring of 1998 that includes an interview with Byron, anecdotes from his colleagues, and a more thorough cataloguing of his accomplishments and legacy at Friends School.
There will be a memorial service in Byron's honor on Saturday, April 29, at 3:00 PM in the Friends School Gym (a fitting venue, given Byron’s lifelong passion for athletics). Those wishing to send notes to his family can do so at this address: 30 Barthel Ct., Lutherville, MD 21093. You can view Byron’s Baltimore Sun obituary at this link.
I know you will all join me in holding Byron’s family in the Light as they deal with their loss.
Head of School