Perhaps because she was an only child of parents who were often distant or difficult, Marty Stern became devoted to children. She adopted three, including a son with special needs, was stepmother to four more, and taught children with developmental delays and autism.
As an advocate for Chapter 766, the Massachusetts law guaranteeing education programs best suited for those with special needs, and as a champion of early intervention, she could rise to the challenge of lobbying legislators or lower herself in a literal sense to the plane of the children she loved.
“She was a very small person, and she’d get down on her haunches, very physically on their level, right down on the floor,” said her friend Anne Wanzer of Exeter, N.H., who, like Mrs. Stern, lived in Concord for many years. “She had extraordinary concern for all these kids she worked with.”
Mrs. Stern, who also had been a Smith College roommate of Sylvia Plath and was a must-interview for the poet’s many biographers, died of ovarian cancer July 25 in her Concord home. She was 79 and had sent her daughter a letter 22 years ago offering guidance for how family and friends might celebrate her life in a service that now will be held Saturday in Concord.
“I may live a long time,” she wrote to Cary Plumer Frye of Fairfax, Va. “But I know this wonderfully rich, active and healthy life I have cannot last forever. I’d love to disappear in a puff of colorful smoke. But what would the reality be? I want you to know my wishes.”
Mrs. Stern collected sun icons, and she loved sunflowers, which will fill First Parish in Concord for the service, said her husband, Ernest.
“She adored the sun,” he said. “In fact, she had suns from all over the world that festooned our house.”
The sun “was her personal icon,” said her stepdaughter Sara of Chicago. “She had them outside the house and inside the house, and I think she herself had many elements of the sun. She would bring joy and light to wherever she was.”
That was the case in Mrs. Stern’s friendship with Plath, whose poetry and prose often reflected the writer’s struggle with depression, which ended with her suicide in 1963. When the two were roommates, Mrs. Stern was Marcia Brown, a sociology and child study major.
“Rooming with Marcia last year was one of the most vital experiences of my life,” Plath once wrote, as recorded in “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath,” edited by Karen V. Kukil.
At another point, Plath yearned “to take a walk with Marcia Brown and love her for her exuberance, to catch some of it, because it’s real, and once again love life day by day, color by color, touch by touch.”
Mrs. Stern donated to Smith College her correspondence with Plath, which includes a letter the poet dated a week before taking her life.
She also gave her alma mater “Marcia,” an unpublished poem Plath wrote.
“I have the poem in front of me,” said Kukil, curator of the college’s Sylvia Plath Collection. “In one description, ‘cheeks appleshining,’ the word ‘appleshining’ is one word, and I think it captures Marcia somehow. She was upbeat and positive, a really good force in this world. I suppose there aren’t many people who can hold their own on the same plane as Sylvia Plath, but she really could.”
Marcia Brown was born in Orange, N.J., and graduated from Smith in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and child study.
Soon after, she married Mike Plumer, and Plath was a bridesmaid in their wedding.
Encountering difficulties having children, the couple decided to work with an adoption agency, and the one child they hoped for turned out to be twins.
“There’s a wonderful story about how they had to take one of us home in a laundry basket because they only had one bassinet,” said Frye, whom the Plumers adopted along with her brother, Douglas Plumer, who now lives in New York City.
The couple also adopted Eric, now of Bedford. As years progressed, he faced autism and mental health diagnoses. Raising a special-needs child prompted Mrs. Stern to return to school, and she received a master’s in early childhood education from what is now Lesley University.
Mrs. Stern also was a founder of a preschool association in Concord, which offers scholarships to children with special needs, and spent more than 30 years on the board of The Gifford School in Weston, which enrolls special-needs children.
“As the parent of a child with special needs, she brought a particular perspective to what we were doing,” said Mike Bassichis, executive director of The Gifford School. “Marty was really important in developing the soul of the school, not just the practical stuff of meetings and committees, but making the place humane, making it warm, making it inviting.”
For many years Mrs. Stern also taught at Milldam Nursery School in Concord, and the town’s early intervention program.
She also lobbied state lawmakers to incorporate an approach that would help parents keep special-needs children in their homes and communities, rather than sending them to institutions.
“She taught us and people around her that you have to care about other people who need more than you do, and you have to do that every day,” Frye said.
Mrs. Stern’s marriage to her first husband ended in divorce, and she was living in Concord when she met Ernest Stern, whom she married in 1971. He first saw her when she was outside in Concord with one of her sons.
“She was riding a bicycle, sunflowers on the front,” he recalled. “Eric was behind her. He was a beautiful child: blond, blue-eyed, just gorgeous. And the sun was shining upon her. I just saw that vision and was greatly affected by it.”
In addition to her husband, daughter, two sons, and stepdaughter, Mrs. Stern leaves three other stepdaughters, Jessica of Cambridge, Hilary of Soquel, Calif., and Jennifer of Barrington, R.I.; and eight grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at noon Saturday in First Parish Church of Concord.
“She had such a profound impact on my life, but I think to look at the larger picture, she touched so many people, and she touched them with such care by teaching them,” Frye said.
At The Gifford School, Bassichis said that “the hardest phone call that I’ve ever had was when Marty called me and she said I want you to come and say goodbye to me, because I love you. And I love her, too. She was just an amazing person who is going be very missed.”
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