Donald Edwin Rasmussen, longtime Philadelphia area educator and early civil-rights activist

Posted: November 05, 2013

DON RASMUSSEN and his wife, Lore, were driving north of Philadelphia one evening in September 1963 when they heard a radio broadcast that changed both their lives.

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., had been bombed, and four little Sunday School girls were killed.

The Rasmussens were familiar with that church because they had taught at Talladega College in Birmingham. At the time they heard the broadcast, Don was principal of the private Miquon School in Whitemarsh and Lore was the math teacher.

"Lore and I were silent for some time," Don wrote. "Lore spoke first. I will never forget her words. She said that she was going to quit the Miquon School and begin working in the worst of the slum areas of Philadelphia."

Don continued for another year as principal of Miquon before he joined his wife in Philly where they worked together to bring innovative education to the underprivilged children of the city.

Donald Edwin Rasmussen, a sociologist and longtime educator in both college and secondary schools, a teacher of teachers who traveled as far as China to encourage professional development of educators, died Oct. 18. He was 96 and lived in Berkeley, Calif.

His wife, a German native who had come to the U.S. to escape the Nazis, died in 2009. She was 88.

Don and his wife became early civil-rights activists when they moved to Alabama in 1942, and experienced the first shock of Jim Crow racism.

Don taught sociology and economics and Lore was an education teacher at Talladega College. One day they made the mistake of lunching with a black man, the executive director of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, at Nancy's Cafe, a black restaurant, in Birmingham.

They were arrested and spent the night in the local lockup, charged with violating the law that forbade whites and blacks from dining together in public. They were fined.

Their story was featured in the 2000 PBS documentary, From Swastika to Jim Crow, which recounts the experiences of Jewish educators expelled from Germany by the Nazis who found teaching jobs in Southern colleges.

"As soon as we left the Talladega campus, we found a situation of extreme apartheid that appeared as insanity to us," Don once said. "We were in what we might call the best of America and the worst of America."

While at Miquon, Lore was the subject of a Reader's Digest story about her special approach to teaching mathematics to young children, called "She Turns Figures Into Fun."

Donald Rasmussen was born in Kolze, Ill. His father was a railroad engineer and his mother a teacher. Don attended Elmhurst College and the University of Illinois, where he received a doctorate in sociology and met his wife.

In the early '50s, Don and Lore directed Circle Pines Center, a cooperative family summer camp and education center in Michigan frequented by social activists from across the U.S. In 1956, the Rasmussens moved to suburban Philadelphia with their three sons to work at the Miquon School.

In Philadelphia, Don followed his wife as she set up learning centers in various public schools, starting with Douglass Elementary, and culminating with the Durham Child Development Center in South Philadelphia. He specialized in teacher professional development.

Don co-authored the Basic Reading Series, a linguistic approach to reading for young children still published by McGraw-Hill.

In 1984 and 1986, Don led teams of U.S. educators on professional visits to China, where they trained editors of People's Education Press on innovative approaches to mathematics and science education.

Don took the first computers used for educational purposes to the press and remained close to the leadership. He made his last trip to China in 2009 at the age of 93.

The family moved to Berkeley in the mid-1980s.

"He was very people-oriented," said his son, David Rasmussen. "He had extremely high values and a deep concern for social justice. He never flinched from standing up for human rights and justice."

Besides his son, he is survived by two other sons, Peter and Steven; nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Services: A memorial service was being arranged.

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