PULLMAN, Wash. — George Bernard Brain, the longtime dean of the Washington State University College of Education who influenced public education nationwide, died last week at age 92.
 
As former colleagues heard the news, they remembered Brain’s formidable recall of people and facts, which strengthened his role as a power broker and passionate educator.
 
“George knew people all over the country, from the U.S. secretary of education to the superintendents of very small school districts,” said WSU Associate Professor Dennis Ray.
 
 “He just had a phenomenal memory for people and their career paths and for school law, which was his real love,” said Ray, for whom Brain served as doctoral advisor. “In a seminar, he’d bounce off names and dates and court cases. I’m sure if we’d had laptops, we would have been sitting there Googling to see if he was right. He always was.”
 
Brain was dean of the College of Education from 1965 to 1983. Joanne Harkins was his assistant at the end of his tenure on the Pullman campus.
 
“He was friendly with everyone, and knew everyone,” said Harkins, now assistant to the dean in the College of Science. “He was from a generation of administrators who actively participated in improving the K-12 schools around the state of Washington by matching principals and superintendents to the right school districts.  He really cared.”
 
A quick rise into school leadership
Brain was born on April 25, 1919, in the tiny Kittitas County town of Thorp, Wash., where he returned after his retirement from WSU. He died in nearby Ellensburg on July 14.
 
He is survived by his wife, Harriet, of Ellensburg, son George of Tacoma and daughter Marylou Seeman of Spokane. A private family service will be held Saturday at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Ellensburg.
 
The service will include military honors in recognition of Brain’s service in the Marine Corps during World War II. He was a Japanese language officer and recipient of the Iwo Jima Medal. He was a reservist after the war and wore a Marine Corps baseball cap until his death. 
 
Brain began his career as a teacher in Yakima, but quickly moved into administration. He received his M.A. in education from Central Washington State College in 1950 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1957. 
 

He became the state’s youngest school superintendent in 1953 when he was hired by the Bellevue school district.

In 1959, Time magazine dubbed him “the fastest-rising educator in the U.S. public school system.” It recounted how Brain had put together “a $45 million system of eleven elementary, three junior high and two senior high schools in a community that was little more than a little-red-schoolhouse hamlet before World War II” as well as “some of the most interesting U.S. public experiments in setting up ungraded classes and grouping children according to ability.” 

Into the national spotlight
Brain’s hiring as superintendent of the Baltimore public schools in 1960 took him across the country and into the national spotlight. He served four years in that role during the tumultuous time following court-ordered school desegregation.
 
The Baltimore Public Schools online history notes that Brain had been on the job only a few months when a Baltimore student walked out of the Bible reading that was part of opening exercises at his junior high, and virtually every other school in the United States. His mother, Madalyn Murray (later, Madalyn Murray O’Hair), took her case against prayer and Bible reading in the schools to the Supreme Court, where she won in June 1963.
 
In 1964, Brain returned to his home state to become WSU’s dean of the College of Education and summer school director. He had just been elected president of the American Association of School Administrators. In his resignation from Baltimore, he cited his desire to focus on writing, research and the training of secondary school personnel.
 
Influence in state, nation, beyond
He did more than make sure school administrators were prepared and mentored. He got them jobs. A phone call from George Brain was a job applicant’s ticket to the top.
“The stories are all true, he was very influential in our state and nation,” said Clinical Associate Professor Gene Sharratt.
 

Sharratt directs WSU’s 15-year-old superintendent certification program, which prepares two-thirds of Washington’s top school administrators. Like Ray, the program’s founding director, Sharratt remembers Brain’s intelligence, caring and strength of will.

“George was on my dissertation committee, liked my study and told everyone else to like the study,” Sharratt said. “Needless to say, the committee liked the study!” 

Don Orlich, a retired professor of education, said Brain made sure that educational administration faculty members worked closely with school districts. Orlich recalled being dispatched by Brain to help Walla Walla administrators rework a failed grant application, which was approved on the second try.

Brain’s influence was felt not only outside the state, but also outside the country. With Brain’s support, Orlich traveled to Manila, Singapore, Bangkok and Rangoon, working with international schools in Southeast Asia on behalf of the College of Education.

“The international schools would send people to Pullman to get masters and doctorates, and we would send faculty there for training,” he said. 

The legacy of that involvement lives on in WSU’s International School Leadership Certificate Program.

Brain Library in Cleveland Hall

In 1980, Brain was badly injured when he fell from a ladder while sweeping Mount St. Helens ash off the roof of his house.  He retired three years later. He returned to campus in 1987, when the education library in Cleveland Hall was renamed in his honor.
 
“We lost a legend,” Sharratt said on Monday. “I admired him and Harriet very much for their kindness and loyalty to WSU and the College of Education.”

Brain’s family has established a WSU scholarship in his name, to benefit students seeking advanced education degrees. Checks payable to the WSU Foundation may be sent to Affordable Funeral Care, 101 E. 2nd Ave., Ellensburg, WA 98926.

Notes of condolence may be sent to the George Brain family in care of 5409 S. Custer Road, Spokane, WA 99223.
 
See obituary on the WSU News obituary page.