As Thomas R. Pumphrey cleaned the floors of Burtonsville Elementary School, he was already working on his dream.
In the evenings, he left his day job as a school custodian behind, becoming a college student at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He was studying social work so he could make a difference.
The former custodian went on to be a teacher, a principal and a preacher, and he continues to work to better his community. Last week, he was recognized by the city of Gaithersburg, receiving a copy of the city’s Black History Month proclamation.
After getting married, Pumphrey dropped out of school just shy of graduating from Morgan State. He went to work for the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, but his job was eliminated in 1981.
He said he did data entry work from home after that, but he hated it because he likes to be with people. A friend suggested he get a job with Montgomery County public schools as an instructional assistant working at the Mark Twain School in Rockville, an alternative placement school for middle and high school students that has since closed.
While there, he said, the school system was looking for minorities to become certified teachers.
“I knew I needed to go to school, and it turned out I did have enough credits to get a bachelor’s degree from Morgan,” he said. “I did a Johns Hopkins [University] program in special ed and a teacher certification through Trinity College” in the District.
After teaching one year in a Mark Twain satellite program at Rosa Parks Middle School, in Olney, he applied to become an administrator. He was placed as an assistant principal at Burtonsville Elementary , reaching the top in the same place where he had started at the bottom.
Pumphrey is retired, but he still works with the schools. He is a member of the board of directors of the Montgomery County Public Schools Educational Foundation, which offers scholarships and grants to students — especially minorities — attending Montgomery College and with the office of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction, which looks at enrichment programs and how they are performing.
Pumphrey, a Vietnam veteran, has been a pastor at Inter-Denominational Church of God in Gaithersburg since 1978. The congregation, he said, is mostly African American. Sunday services draw about 400 or 500 people.
He became a full-time pastor in 2000 and senior pastor last year.
“I believe that being a pastor is a call from God,” he said.
His call came, he said, when he was only 5 or 6.
“It was Easter Monday, and we all went to the home of our pastor,” he said. “I was running through the grass, and he picked me up and said, ‘One day this boy would preach the Word of God.’ ”
He didn’t turn to God or even think of preaching until years later, when his life was “a mess” and he wanted to join the church where he now serves.
Pumphrey grew up in Spencerville and went to the segregated elementary school in Sandy Spring. He was in the first integrated class at what was then Sherwood Junior Senior High School.
“That was 1957, and I was going into seventh grade,” he said. “There were no incidents. [The black and white students] knew each other. We didn’t go to school together, but we knew each other from the neighborhood. . . . We just grew together and came to an understanding that we were going to be together.”
Pumphrey quickly stood out among the candidates for the City of Gaithersburg Black History Month Proclamation, said Charlemagne Orisme, a member of the City of Gaithersburg Multicultural Affairs Committee.
“The intent was not to look for someone with name recognition, but to find someone who is doing work within the boundaries of the city and to remind that person that his/her work is important to the continuing growth and development of the City of Gaithersburg,” Orisme wrote in an e-mail.
Pumphrey received the proclamation from Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz at the City Council meeting Feb. 19.
Pumphrey said he thinks Black History Month is vital.
“Black history has to be a part of the everyday teaching. These were people who were involved in the building of this county,” he said. “We are part of the tapestry. It is woven with the stories of African Americans.”