West Alexander Hamilton, 99, a retired Army colonel and veteran of two world wars, who had served on the D.C. School Board for 21 years, died Dec. 22 of an embolism at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He lived in Washington.
Col. Hamilton enlisted in the D.C. National Guard in 1905 and advanced to the rank of colonel before World War II. He received an honorary National Guard promotion to brigadier general in 1983, but was always known as "The Colonel."
During the 21 years he served on the school board, he gained a reputation for being forthright and fearless. He was known for making long, cleverly phrased speeches that could either entertain or provoke his audience.
Once when the board was arguing whether to hire its first public relations specialist, Col. Hamilton -- a freckled-faced man who often favored a cigar -- summed up the situation by noting that "he who tooteth his own horn shall not have it tooted for him."
Col. Hamilton was born into Washington's black middle-class at a time when few blacks achieved major success in business or distinction in public service. He graduated from Dunbar High School, which was reserved for the city's most talented black students when the system was segregated. After attending the old Miner Normal School, the city's black teachers' college, he began teaching in the public schools in 1907. He earned a master's degree from American University in 1955, at age 69.
"I wanted to be an engineer, but there wasn't any money . . . in my family," the Colonel said in an interview with the Post years later. "So I did with what I had. Poor people don't have to be hoodlums or criminals. My family was poor, and I was poor, so I say that from my own experience."
Col. Hamilton taught for 10 years, but in 1917 decided to pursue a full-time career in the military. During World War I, he had assignments in this country and in Europe. He retired from active Army duty with the rank of colonel in 1933 and returned to the reserves.
In the years between the wars, Col. Hamilton commanded the 428th Infantry Reserve Regiment and was the commanding officer of the Citizens Military Training Camp at the old Fort Howard in Maryland. He also owned and operated the old Hamilton Printing Co. with his brother, Percival Y. Hamilton.
During World War II, he commanded the 366th Infantry Regiment at Fort Devens, Mass. After the war, he taught military science at Prairie View A.&M. College in Texas and at Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore and was a member of the Secretary of War's Discharge Review Board in Washington.
Col. Hamilton served on the D.C. School Board from 1937 until he returned to active duty in the Army in 1943. He returned to the board in 1952 and retired in 1967.
During the better part of a century that he observed changes in race relations, Col. Hamilton found it difficult to comprehend the anger of some younger blacks who believed conditions for their race had not improved significantly since slavery.
"I'm a Negro. I know what our deprivations have been," Col. Hamilton said in the Post in 1967. "Whatever progress the Negro has made has been made in spite of slavery, and in spite of the 100-year gap in education which followed."
Long before D.C. schools were desegregated in 1954, Col. Hamilton had made numerous public speeches emphasizing that education in Washington could never be improved under a dual school system. He said he believed "the lag in educational achievement in Washington is due mainly to sociological conditions that are beyond the control of the schools. The parents have got to do more, for one thing. The schools can't do it all . . . . "
On the board, where he headed the buildings and grounds committee, Col. Hamilton lobbied on Capitol Hill for funds to make long-overdue repairs to swimming pools at public schools. He also spoke out when the board voted to ban Bible reading and the Lord's Prayer in the schools. He urged the board to make provisions for students to "spontaneously engage in devotional services."
Col. Hamilton had been a member of the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade, the D.C. Civil War Centennial Commission, the Greater Washington Educational TV Association, and the D.C. Board of Elections. He was a past president of the Washington chapter of Frontiers International, and a lifetime member of the D.C. National Guard Association. The West A. Hamilton National Guard Museum, on the ground floor of the D.C. Armory, is named in his honor.
He was a Mason and a member of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Washington, where he was a former warden and vestryman.
His first wife, Marcellite Hamilton, died in 1942. His second wife, Carolyn G. Gould Hamilton, died in 1978. In addition to his brother, of Washington, survivors include a sister, Josephine H. Pettie, of Elmhurst, N.Y.