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Robert Bickford, who led Prince George’s Community College, dies at 92

He helped grow the school into a ‘vitally important’ institution, said former Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III

Robert I. Bickford led Prince George's Community College for 27 years. (Doug Barber)

Robert I. Bickford, who led Prince George’s Community College for 27 years, overseeing its growth into one of the county’s major centers of professional training and educational advancement, died Aug. 3 at his home in Bowie, Md. He was 92.

The cause was respiratory failure, said his daughter Robin Brooks.

Dr. Bickford was a lifelong resident of Prince George’s County, where he began his career as a high school physical education teacher in the 1950s. He rose through the administrative ranks at PGCC before his appointment as president in 1972 and, by the time he retired in 1999, had led the Washington-area college for well over half its history.

He “built it from its foundation” into an “important higher educational institution,” said Rushern L. Baker III, a former Prince George’s County executive, describing PGCC in a phone interview as “vitally important to the county and its growth.”

PGCC was founded as an evening school at Suitland High School in 1958, with an inaugural class of 71 full-time and 114 part-time students. Nine years later, the college moved to Largo, where its main campus remains today.

Under Dr. Bickford’s leadership, PGCC’s student population rose from 10,000 to 35,000, and its annual budget grew from $7.7 million to $50 million, according to a Washington Post report. Its physical expansion included the construction of a $13.5 million science center, Chesapeake Hall, which featured 17 new laboratories.

PGCC today includes five satellite locations across the county, from Laurel to Upper Marlboro.

The expansion of PGCC coincided with the growth of the region. Prince George’s County, once majority White, became majority African American in the 1980s. The demographic shift was reflected in the student body at PGCC, where Black students constituted 15 percent of the student body when Dr. Bickford took office and 70 percent of the total when he stepped down.

Department of Data: Is Prince George’s still the richest majority-Black county in America?

Critics of Dr. Bickford argued that he did not move with sufficient speed to bring similar diversity to the college’s teaching ranks. By 1998, just 23 percent of the college’s full-time instructors were people of color, The Washington Post reported.

Other critics noted that tuition rose to be the highest of any community college in Maryland. “It’s a dubious distinction,” Robert Hardwick, his executive assistant, conceded to The Post in 1991. But PGCC remained substantially less expensive than many four-year institutions and, by all accounts, provided tens of thousands of students with a path toward greater education and professional opportunity. In 1978, The Post described the college as “the backbone of higher education for the average county resident.”

PGCC generally catered to older students, many of whom attended classes part-time. Some planned to pursue an associate’s degree at the school and then transfer to a four-year institution, such as the University of Maryland; others were seeking technical or professional training to make themselves more competitive in the job market.

Compared with many four-year colleges, PGCC offered smaller class sizes and more flexible hours, which were of critical importance to students who also held down jobs. Some students enrolled for remedial instruction in English or math; others sought degrees or certificates in fields including health care, hospitality, accounting, public safety, criminal justice, computer science and automotive technology.

Dr. Bickford transformed “what might have been an after-school or night program,” Baker said, into “an actual college … where a lot of our children and future executives are starting their careers.”

Dr. Bickford was succeeded in 1999 by Ronald A. Williams, the first African American to lead the community college.

“Dr. Bickford was a visionary leader who set in motion groundbreaking initiatives at the College during his 27-year tenure as president, the effects of which are felt profoundly today,” the current president, Falecia D. Williams, said in a statement. “We would not be where we are as a community if not for Dr. Bickford’s belief in who [we] could become and steadfast commitment to guiding us there.”

Robert Ira Bickford Jr. was born in Brentwood, Md., on Aug. 5, 1929. His father was an engineer, and his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Bickford was a 1945 graduate of Bladensburg High School, where he was elected class president and showed an affinity for athletics, playing baseball, basketball and soccer, according to his family.

He enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he played on the school’s baseball team — once facing off against future president George H.W. Bush, playing for Yale — and received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1950. He received a master’s degree in education in 1964 and a PhD in higher education in 1972, both from George Washington University, according to his family.

Dr. Bickford began his career in education that year as a physical education teacher at Maryland Park High School. He later taught at Suitland High School, where he coached sports including baseball, basketball and football, instructing student-athletes including future U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Baltimore Orioles manager Ray Miller.

Dr. Bickford was teaching at Suitland High when PGCC opened and was first employed by the college as a part-time instructor and golf coach. He joined the staff two years later as director of student activities and athletics. He was later dean of the evening and summer school division before assuming the presidency.

His wife of 64 years, the former June Douglas, died in 2014.

Survivors include five children, Beverly Schill of Bowie, Mark Bickford of Wake Forest, N.C., Susan Mathias of Stephens City, Va., Wayne Bickford of Crofton, Md., and Robin Brooks of Ellicott City, Md.; 12 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Reflecting on his career, Dr. Bickford told The Post in 1998 that he found pride and meaning in what the community college “stands for.”

“It provides the opportunity for everyone to go to college,” he said. “To see people that didn’t have much of a chance make something of their lives has always been very fulfilling to me.”