Special

Mary Mazzio, unlikely hero for those less fortunate

Part of the film crew from the documentary, “Underwater Dreams.”
Richard E Schultz
Part of the film crew from the documentary, “Underwater Dreams.” Several of Mary Mazzio’s films have become classroom staples including “A Hero for Daisy,” which has been shown in thousands of schools.

Mary Mazzio, a blue-eyed suburban hockey mom, also stands as one of the country’s more prominent promoters of diversity. The White House earlier this year screened her most recent documentary, “Underwater Dreams,” which chronicles how a team of immigrant Mexican high school kids built an underwater robot that won a national competition, beating out a team from MIT.

Kris Connor/Getty Images for EPIX
Oscar Vazquez and Mary Mazzio posed for a photo during a screening of "Underwater Dreams.”

Mazzio’s path to documentary filmmaking began while she was training to row for the 1992 Olympics.

She spent her training downtime writing movie scripts, none of which sold. Afterward, she went back to her corporate law job at Brown Rudnick in Boston, eventually becoming a partner in the real estate practice.

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She did pro bono legal work for the homeless, and, she says, “I kept seeing the same story but a different face, and I found that incredibly depressing. I felt like I was doing nothing systemic, nothing helpful.”

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She went to film school in what little spare time she had, and then worked on what became “A Hero for Daisy,” the story of Chris Ernst, the Yale rower who in 1976 forced the school to carry out Title IX rules establishing equal treatment for collegiate women athletes.

Mazzio finished the movie while on maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter, Daisy. Ernst became a hero to more than just her daughter. The movie was a minor sensation, and led to ESPN contacting her about making what became “Apple Pie,” a documentary about athletes and their moms.

When that also succeeded, she left the law firm to pursue her new career as a filmmaker.

Several of Mazzio’s films have become classroom staples; “A Hero for Daisy” has been shown in thousands of schools. “Ten9Eight,” about underprivileged youths competing in a national business plan competition, moved New York Times columnist Tom Friedman to call on President Obama to have it shown in every classroom in America.

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With “Underwater Dreams,” The Let Everyone Dream Coalition has raised $90 million to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs for minorities.

Mazzio worried that a white hockey mom with a corporate law background couldn’t connect with her subjects.

But her life isn’t as privileged as it sounds. She and her three siblings were raised in Needham by their mom after her dad left the family when Mary, the oldest, was just 13.

Piano and tennis lessons went away, and Mazzio worked her way through college and law school. Later, she learned her family had been on food stamps.

Sitting in her production office in Wellesley at a coffee table custom made from the hull of a racing shell, Mazzio says that as rewarding as it was to meet Obama and appear on the “Colbert Report,” the highlight of her year came when she showed “Underwater Dreams” to a thousand middle schoolers in California.

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Mazzio was nervous; middle-school students, she notes “are not a polite audience; they don’t give a [expletive] about what you think.” At the end, a girl raised her hand, and said, “I didn’t think I could be someone, but because of your movie I think I’m going to do something big now.” Mazzio says she almost burst into tears on stage in front of the audience.

‘I found that while I’m white and privileged, I can articulate something that someone with no privileges or advantages can be excited by. That’s it, that’s why I’m here.’

“I found that while I’m white and privileged,” Mazzio says, “I can articulate something that someone with no privileges or advantages can be excited by.” She pauses, and smiles.

“That’s it, that’s why I’m here.”

Michael Fitzgerald is a frequent Globe contributor. E-mail him at michael@mffitzgerald.com.