John ‘Jack’ Nolan
Longtime Baltimore teacher, volunteer, activist with Democratic party, served in the Navy during World War II
John T. “Jack” Nolan, a longtime Baltimore teacher and volunteer who aimed to instill an appreciation for history and civic responsibility in his community, died of congestive heart failure Nov. 23 at the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson. He was 93.
Born in Philadelphia to a firefighter and a homemaker, he was orphaned by the time he was a teenager. His guardian, a nun, arranged for him and his brother to board at Baltimore’s Mount Saint Joseph High School. He enlisted in the Navy after graduation and served as part of a gun crew in the Pacific during the final year of World War II.
Mr. Nolan attended La Salle University under the GI bill before relocating with his wife, Peggy Nolan, and daughters to Northeast Baltimore in 1953.
In Baltimore, he began a decades-long career as a city schoolteacher. As his family grew, he picked up second jobs to supplement his teacher’s salary: He drove a taxi and sold life insurance and World Book encyclopedias.
“He had a million jobs,” said his granddaughter Megan Timmins of Catonsville. But teaching “was the work he defined his life by.”
No matter how busy his schedule, the family of six gathered for dinner each night. Mr. Nolan would ask his girls about what they learned in school and share what happened during his school day, too. He represented educators’ interests as a field director for the Public School Teacher Association of Baltimore City.
A “FDR-style Democrat,” Mr. Nolan also infused politics into the family’s nightly dinner conversation. He preached the importance of voting and exemplified his commitment to civic engagement by turning his family’s rowhome into a polling place in the 1960s. His daughter Margaret Ann Nolan remembers lugging the living room furniture out of the way to make room for hulking voting machines.
He served on citywide task forces on community development and mass transit, and worked as a campaign manager in the 1968 congressional campaign. He served two terms on the Democratic State Central Committee and was a delegate to three Democratic state conventions.
In 1999, after years of supporting other people’s campaigns, he launched an unsuccessful bid for Baltimore City Council. He ran on a platform of improving city schools, with the 5th- and 6th-grade students he had taught in mind.
Ms. Timmins still has a bumper sticker from her time helping out on the campaign.
Beyond his work in the classroom, in politics and in labor relations, family was the center of Mr. Nolan’s life. Though he was a child when he lost his parents — and was preceded in death by his wife, a daughter and a grandson — his family members say he often described himself as the luckiest man in the world.
“Other people who had the personal losses he had would never have described themselves as lucky,” said Ms. Nolan. “But he always did.”
He was a constant presence at school plays and events. He took his grandchildren on trips, loading them into his huge mint-green car and taking them to Philadelphia and Monticello and Gettysburg. Always an educator, he’d assign each kid an attraction to research ahead of time.
“He was just so present,” Ms. Timmins said. “All of our friends called him ‘grandfather,’ too.”
On Grandparents Day at school, he would revert into teacher mode and captivate the classroom with stories of the country’s past.
He missed doling lessons so much in his 70s and 80s that he returned to work as a substitute teacher at the Forbush School for children with special needs. He also volunteered in classrooms at St. Pius X and Resurrection St. Paul and gave history lessons — usually on FDR and the New Deal.
Every Wednesday for 25 years he volunteered at Catholic Charities’ Our Daily Bread soup kitchen.
He stayed true to his interests even as his health deteriorated. When his heart problems sent him to the emergency room, his family rushed in to find him on a gurney reading a copy of The Baltimore Sun. He asked his granddaughter questions about former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s indictment while in his hospice bed.
During his final weeks, he worked with Ms. Timmins to record some of his life stories. She would pull out her phone and record him as he reminisced. He spoke recently of World War II and his sincere hope that civilization learned its lesson from the last great war and would not be doomed to repeat history.
He also maintained his Irish sense of humor, making a joke with the priest who gave him last rites.
He made a point to tell every member of his family just how proud he was of them, said his grandson James McGraw.
“All I can think of now is how proud I am of the man he was and what he did for our family,” he said.
As he and his relatives prepare for their first holiday season without “the architect of our family,” Mr. McGraw said he finds himself thinking of the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
His grandfather, he says, “was a quintessential George Bailey.”
A Mass of Christian burial was offered Nov. 27 at St. Pius X Church, 6428 York Road.
In addition to Margaret Ann Nolan, Mr. Nolan is survived by two other daughters: Mary Beth Nolan-McGraw of Parkville and Maureen T. Kazaras of Westminster. His fourth daughter, Kathleen D. Nolan, died in 2014. He is also survived by eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
John Nolan volunteered every Wednesday for 25 years at Catholic Charities’ Our Daily Bread soup kitchen.