Teacher, men­tor, friend

Don “Oz” Os­man in­spired his stu­dents and his com­mu­nity through self­less ser­vice

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By James T. Sarazin James T. Sarazin is pres­i­dent of Mary­land Deck and Shed; his email ad­dress is jsarazin@me.com.

Say the word “teacher.” The im­age it evokes re­flects the ex­pe­ri­ence you’ve had with them. Some peo­ple will have pos­i­tive thoughts and some neg­a­tive; most will have a mix of the two.

WhenI say that word (and I con­sider it to be a sa­cred word), there is one per­son who em­bod­ies it above all oth­ers: my high school English teacher with whom I’m friends to this day. I am now 55, and he con­tin­ues to teach and in­spire me.

If you were lucky enough to be in his class while at­tend­ing Havre de Grace High School, the first thing you would have re­al­ized about Don “Oz” Os­man was that he cared; he cared a lot.

It was ev­i­dent that he was ful­fill­ing his des­tiny by teach­ing. Sit­ting in his class, you felt the same way you did when you watched a mas­ter mu­si­cian play an in­stru­ment. We were the lucky ones; we were his in­stru­ments.

His most pro­found lessons, how­ever, took place out­side the class­room. Oz taught by ex­am­ple — not just his stu­dents, but the en­tire com­mu­nity.

One day, decades ago, he re­ceived a call from a stranger. The caller was try­ing to reach his mother who­lived in a se­nior liv­ing fa­cil­ity. He was con­cerned as he had had been un­able to reach her de­spite sev­eral at­tempts. Not re­call­ing the name of the fa­cil­ity but fig­ur­ing that some­one in Havre de Grace would know of it, the in­di­vid­ual de­cided to dial a phone num­ber one num­ber up from his mother’s line, and ran­domly reached Oz, who im­me­di­ately of­fered to help.

Oz took down the woman’s name and room num­ber, and made a point of visit­ing the fa­cil­ity to check on her. She had fallen ill and needed med­i­cal as­sis­tance. Oz made sure that she and the fam­ily mem­ber who had called him re­ceived the help that they needed. Oz then made it a point to visit the wom­ana­gain, as her fam­ily lived out of state. Af­ter visit­ing the se­nior care cen­ter and see­ing the lonely con­di­tion in which some of the peo­ple in his com­mu­nity were liv­ing, Oz chose to do some­thing about it.

He or­ga­nized a group of vol­un­teer high school stu­dents to visit the nurs­ing homes in Havre de Grace on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. This group’s mis­sion was to bring joy to those whomight not have very muchin their lives. He called them “SMILES” for Ser­vice Makes an In­di­vid­ual’s Life Ex­tra Spe­cial.

An­other one of his ideas was to or­ga­nize a se­nior prom— not se­niors in high school but se­nior cit­i­zens. He or­ches­trated all as­pects of the prom, again so­lic­it­ing the help of stu­dent vol­un­teers. The stu­dents worked to en­sure that the se­niors had a won­der­ful evening.

The SMILES pro­gram lasted for over 30 years un­til Oz’s re­tire­ment from teach­ing, but that was not the end of his vol­un­teerism. Oz also started a com­mu­nity Thanks­giv­ing Day Din­ner. The din­ner is open to all; not just the strug­gling, but also the lonely and any­one whowants a com­mu­nal meal. There are no ques­tions asked, just a wel­com­ing smile and an open ta­ble. The Havre de Grace Thanks­giv­ing Day Din­ner now feeds over 1,200 peo­ple an­nu­ally with vol­un­teers com­ing from as far away as Philadelphia and Delaware.

Then, there was the young stu­dent who had no place to live who landed at Oz’s door. Through no fault of his own, the young man was home­less; Oz opened his home to him and helped him find his foot­ing. To­day, Oz lov­ingly refers to him as his son, and he lived with Oz un­til he grad­u­ated from col­lege. That stu­dent is now 40 years old and do­ing very well. Oz could not be prouder; when I last vis­ited with him, Ozproudly showed me pic­tures of his new grand­daugh­ter.

While I was visit­ing, Oz re­ceived sev­eral calls from other peo­ple that he’s cur­rently help­ing out — vet­er­ans who have lost their way, se­nior cit­i­zens who have no one else to talk to. Al­though he never mar­ried, he has the largest fam­ily of any­one I know. I love him as do hundreds of oth­ers. I will al­ways be his stu­dent, and he will al­ways be my teacher.


Don Os­man, cen­ter, an or­ga­nizer of the Thanks­giv­ing din­ner in Havre de Grace, made sure things were run­ning smoothly last year.

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