THOUGH THE NATION may look back on the 1960s as the turbulent times, it took halfway into the 1970s for Prince George's County to overcome an agonizing era of bitterness and racial confrontation stemming from school desegregation. And through all that period of hot-headed posturing and factionalism that threatened to go on endlessly, it was a calm, ever-so-patient black man with an unswerving sense of justice who pointed the way to peace. Jesse J. Warr Jr., who died Thursday at the age of 56, was a major force in bringing about change without violence in an enormously troubled county.
Mr. Warr won his battles by winning respect. Had it not been for his steady, intelligent and determined presence on the county school board for the last nine years, public education in Prince George's might still be-in serious tumult. As much as anything, it was Mr. Warr's gentle manner and rational approach that finally served to soften factions and lead to calm decisions.
A Memphis native who came here for what was to be a career as a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Mr. Warr's initial entry into county school problems came as a parent seeking a way to end long-distance busing of black children past white schools to all-black schools. Eventually, as a member of the county's NAACP, a leader in the church and a Republican, Mr. Warr was appointed to the school board in 1968 by then-Gov. Spiro Agnew.
Mr. Warr promptly joined with other county parents, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union in filing suit against the county system to bring about equal educational opportunity. From this action came a 1972 court order bringing busing to the county in 1973. Through this period and for the next two years, Mr. Warr endured racial slurs until his soft tones and reason eventually cut through the stridency to suggest palatable solutions to sensitive issues.
The historic moment for Mr. Warr came in November of last year, when arch-opponent Sue V. Mills announced that she would not seek re-election as school board chairman and nominated him as her successor. He won the unanimous support of his board colleagues for the job. With racial and community fears subsiding, the board could at last concentrate on education programs for all children.
At the time of his nomination to be chairman, Mr. Warr did step out of character to take a bow for his past efforts, observing that "my nomination as the first black chairman . . . proves, to a degree, that the stand I took on desegregation, my thrust for equal opportunities for all students, has been vindicated."
And so it has. And so, in the process, has the man behind that stand been vindicated, even in the eyes of those who resisted his views the longest. Opponents as well as supporters will miss him deeply now - as will we. But Jesse Warr's contributions to better public education and racial understanding in Prince George's County will be felt for generations to come.