'Visionary' looks back on career

April 26, 1997


Staff Writer

William Ford was an elementary school principal working at the Board of Education office one summer in the late 1960s when then-School Superintendent William Brish invited him to take a course at Columbia University in New York City, Ford said.

Ford was excited about the prospect, but those were the days when elementary principals were paid for only ten months of the year. Going to New York meant surrendering his summer employment which would pose a financial hardship on his young family, he said.

So Brish dug into his pocket and handed Ford several hundred dollars of his own money so he could take the course. "That's the kind of man he was," recalled Ford, who is now assistant superintendent for instruction at the Board of Education.


Former colleagues describe Brish, who is 90 and living in an apartment at the Homewood Retirement Center in Williamsport, as a nationally recognized, progressive educator who pioneered the use of closed-circuit television in the classroom while never losing sight of the human element in teaching.

"He had an amazing ability to see beyond the immediate which meant that he was a visionary," said Richard Whisner, a retired Board of Education administrator and interim school superintendent in 1986-87.

"Each decision he made was based on what effect it would have on the children in the school system."

Retired Washington County administrator Edward Kercheval called Brish a "very down-to-earth intellectual ... (who) went out of his way to talk with teachers and administrators."

Brish presided as superintendent over the tumultuous years between 1947 and 1973 when the county school system underwent rapid growth and American society experienced dramatic changes.

During those 26 years Brish racked up some impressive accomplishments, including the:

  • Construction of sixteen new schools and expansion of four others.
  • Integration of Washington County schools.
  • Revision of the entire curriculum.
  • Doubling of enrollment from about 10,000 students in 1947 to more than 20,000 students in 1973.
  • Establishment of a kindergarten program.
  • Opening in 1966 of the Kemp Horn Vocational School for the Retarded, since renamed the Washington County Job Development Center.
  • Construction in 1969 of a planetarium at the Board of Education central office.
  • Creation in 1970 of open space schools.
  • Opening in 1972 of a new 620-student vocational-technical school, now called the Career Studies Center.

But Brish is probably best known for drawing up a proposal to use the new technology of television in Washington County classrooms. The Ford Foundation funded the innovative project from 1956 to 1961.

Television in the classroom landed Brish criticism from some quarters in the community who feared that the technology would replace teachers but "the world has proven him right," Former Hancock Mayor Ralph Wachter said.

"What he did was ... bring the world into Washington County," said Wachter, who was a teacher and principal under Brish before becoming superintendent of Calvert County schools for nine years.

For instance, children learned to speak French from television classes and "elementary school teachers who couldn't speak French learned with the kids," Wachter said.

Brish recognized that television is just one of many educational tools.

"You still need the teacher and what the teacher does but television can enhance what the teacher does," Brish said. "We accomplished far more with less money by using television."

The television project brought thousands of visitors from all over the world to Washington County to see how it worked, he said.

A computer user

Brish still believes that schools should work with the technology that's available.

Today that means using "the greatest of all" technologies - the computer, noted Brish, who practices what he teaches.

At age 82 Brish got his first computer which he uses for doing genealogical work, word processing, keeping his financial records and communicating through e-mail and internet chat rooms with his grandchildren, he said.

"Oh, I have a wonderful time with it," Brish said. "The Net is just wonderful. I'm very much interested in the news and on the Net I can get information from all the newspapers."

During his tenure as superintendent, Brish added a decidedly international flavor to Washington County education.

In 1950 he was Maryland's representative to the Flying Classroom Tour of Europe which sent American educators to meet world political leaders, Brish said.

In the 1960s teams of Washington County teachers and administrators assisted in setting up television teaching in Nigeria and Brish visited India to help teachers there start a classroom television program.

And for several years groups of 50 to 75 foreign students visiting the United States through a program sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune would stay for a week in the homes of local students, Brish said.

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