Sarah C. ‘Sally-Lyn’ Duff, a retired public school and Johns Hopkins educator and a civil rights activist, dies

Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
·5 min read

Sarah C. “Sally-Lyn” Duff, a retired public school and Johns Hopkins University educator whose civil rights stance with her husband cost them their membership in their local Pennsylvania church and spurred them to leave their home and move to Baltimore, died Saturday at the Broadmead Retirement Community in Hunt Valley. The former Northwest Baltimore resident was 88.

No cause of death was available, family members said.

The former Sarah Carolyn Dolde, daughter of William Dolde, a Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines locomotive engineer, and his wife, Martha Dolde, a homemaker, was born and raised in Haddonfield, New Jersey, where she graduated in 1949 from Haddonfield High School.

After graduating in 1953 from Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, magna cum laude, and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, she worked for three years as a tuberculosis researcher at the Henry Phipps Institute in Philadelphia.

Mrs. Duff, who went by Sally-Lyn, met her future husband, William “Bill” Duff, a chemical engineer, at a church young adult group, fell in love, and married in 1955.

From 1956 to 1958, she became a fourth grade teacher in Haddonfield public schools, and in 1959, moved with her husband to Media, Pennsylvania, where their three children were born.

They were active members of the First Presbyterian Church of Chester, Pennsylvania, where her husband was an elder, and they immersed themselves into the struggle for civil rights.

This activity resulted in raising the racial ire of their Delaware County, Pennsylvania, neighbors as well as their church when an African American family moved into their all-white neighborhood in Folcroft, Pennsylvania, and Mrs. Duff sought to welcome the new neighbors with a cake on Labor Day weekend in 1963.

A stone- and Molotov cocktail-hurling crowd had gathered along with the police, and newspaper, TV and radio reporters who were covering what Mrs. Duff described in a written account of the incident as an “intolerable situation,” and added, “It was essential that some witness of God’s love be made to the Baker family.”

“The simple act of delivering the cake, crossing police lines, was considered somewhat radical, and made the local news,” wrote a son, James Duff, of University Park, in a biographical profile of his mother. “Sally-Lyn and Bill were verbally attacked as well, even by some in their own church. They decided to help with the cause, and from that time became deeply involved in civil rights campaigns in Chester.”

In 1963, Mrs. Duff wrote: “I wonder if we can ever be absolutely certain that what we want to do is right. But, I am sure that, when one becomes aware of need, it is terribly wrong to do nothing. Whatever we do is significant compared with what needs to be done.”

As a result of their social activism, her husband lost his engineering job in Philadelphia, and the couple were censored by their church. In 1965, they decided to make a new life for themselves and their family, and sold their home to an African American family, which again angered neighbors, and moved to Baltimore, settling into a home on Gift Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.

Mrs. Duff continued her activism in her adopted city by organizing voter registration drives, helping establish the East Baltimore Citizens Center in the late 1960s, and voter education work through the League of Women Voters.

She returned to teaching in the mid-1970s and taught science in Baltimore public junior and middle schools, and later worked with gifted students in the poor urban setting until moving into administration and supervision, while continuing to teach a class of middle school students at the Saturday school at the Center for Thinking Studies at Coppin State University.

Dr. Andrea Bowden, former supervisor of science, math and health, who spent 50 years as a teacher and administrator in city public schools until retiring in 2019, worked closely with Mrs. Duff.

“Sally was a gifted teacher, curriculum developer and mentor for young teachers,” Dr. Bowden wrote in an email. “She was a leader in explicit teaching and of thinking skills using metacognition and gained a state-wide reputation for it. As a curriculum writer and teacher, Sally was a stickler for scientific accuracy and had extremely creative ways of presenting complicated material in an understanding manner.

“She believed that student-centered, hands-on-science activities were the best way to teach students both awe and ah-ha of science. She was respected by colleagues, students of all ages and their parents.”

Mrs. Duff retired from city public schools in 1997.

Her work resulted in awards from the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, and the Maryland Association of Science Teachers.

She returned to college and earned a master’s degree in 1985 from Johns Hopkins, and from the late 1990s taught at the Hopkins School of Education as a faculty associate specializing in science education and thinking skills classes. She retired a second time in 2012.

During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, she also wrote for the American Association for Advancement of Science, and contributed to its AAAS Project 2061, which focused on scientific literacy and science education.

In later years, Mrs. Duff participated in Muslim, Christian, Jewish dialogues in Northwest Baltimore and helped fund a school in Pakistan that accepted children of all faiths, family members said.

Mrs. Duff was a longtime active member of Brown Memorial Wood Presbyterian Church, which merged in 2018 with Govans Presbyterian Church. An alto, she sang in choirs and played the violin.

Mrs. Duff’s husband died in 2013.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a remote memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 12 at Govans Presbyterian Church. For further information regarding the Zoom link, the church can be reached at 410-435-9188.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Duff is survived by another son, Robert Duff of Melrose, Massachusetts; a daughter, Carolyn Gibbs of Allison Park, Pennsylvania; a sister, Elizabeth Zimmerman of Cockeysville; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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