Fired from her job as a fourth-grade teacher in Roxbury in 1968 for protesting conditions in her fire-damaged building, Mary Ellen Smith became such a tireless proponent of improving public schools that, 17 years later, she found herself chairing the Massachusetts Board of Education.
“That really validated the fact that this was a woman of tremendous talent,” said Hubie Jones, her social activist friend and colleague. “She was a fierce, unrelenting advocate for quality education for all the children of the Commonwealth.”
When she became chairwoman of the state board in 1985, the Globe praised Ms. Smith in an editorial as “an effective advocate for the schools throughout the troubled years of desegregation in Boston.”
Ms. Smith, a longtime community organizer and education activist, died of liver failure Sept. 16 in Ellis Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Norwood. She was 69 and had lived in Walpole.
In 1968, Ms. Smith joined other teachers, pupils, and their parents in walking out of the Christopher Gibson School in Roxbury, which had not been repaired after a fire damaged the building months earlier. Their protest was part of the era’s demonstrations over school inequality that led parents of minority children to bring a class-action suit against the Boston School Committee.
US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered the city to desegregate its schools, and during the busing crisis that followed, Ms. Smith helped form the Citywide Educational Coalition. The advocacy group provided information and support to parents, and also helped defuse rising tensions in schools and at bus stops around Boston.
“The whole point was to empower parents who didn’t know the system and were intimidated by what was going on,” said John Marston, a coalition member who later married one of Ms. Smith’s sisters. “Mary Ellen worked really well with people who didn’t have a voice. Those folks, mostly parents, were working with a Boston school department that at the time was doing everything in its power to make sure the busing orders didn’t work.”
Coalition staff and volunteers who escorted children to bus stops and school entrances often were subjected to physical threats and violence. Marston called Ms. Smith a “firebrand, who never backed down from uncomfortable situations.”
Jones said one of Ms. Smith’s most important contributions during the crisis was stanching the spread of unfounded rumors that exacerbated racial unrest.
“She worked tirelessly to dispel rumors that would have caused more trouble, all kinds of wild stuff designed to keep white folks inflamed about the court’s decision,” Jones said.
In addition to her work during the busing years, Ms. Smith and others advocated for special needs students who were “bounced out of the school system,” Jones said. That advocacy helped pave the way for Chapter 766, the state law that guarantees educational programs best suited to young residents with special needs.
During Ms. Smith’s career, she also advocated for early childhood education, vocational education, and adult literacy.
The oldest of six children, Mary Ellen Smith grew up in Watertown and Belmont. As a girl, she showed early promise as a proponent of equality when she became one of the first girls to play on the local Little League team, said her brother David of Newton.
“She was a tremendous athlete: basketball, baseball, tennis,” he said, recalling that she regularly bested her brothers at the family basketball hoop.
Ms. Smith graduated from Mount Trinity Academy in Watertown, where she was a star basketball player, and received a full scholarship to Boston College. She graduated with a degree in education in 1965, and later graduated with a master’s in public administration from what is now the Harvard Kennedy School.
She initially taught at schools in Chicago and Bedford, but decided children with fewer financial resources needed her talents more, her brother said, and took a job at the Gibson school.
“She could have done what was easy and stayed in Bedford,” he said. “But she wanted to make a contribution, and she saw teaching in the inner city as that opportunity.”
Ms. Smith’s niece Heather of Medford said that she and her sister often spent Saturdays with their aunt, “who always made us a part of whatever it was she was doing.”
Heather recalled accompanying Ms. Smith on expeditions around Boston to visit parents and get signatures on petitions when she was just 4 or 5.
“We had only a vague understanding of her work, but we knew it was really important and profound,” Heather said. “She was such a strong woman, such a force, that she made me and my sister and my cousins, especially all of us girls, feel like we could do anything.”
In 1975, Garrity appointed Ms. Smith to the Citywide Coordinating Council to help monitor the desegregation orders.
Governor Michael S. Dukakis appointed her to the board of education in 1983, and she became chairwoman two years later. She also remained involved with the Citywide Educational Coalition as executive director until the organization dissolved in 2001.
Ms. Smith married her longtime partner, Jane Morrison, a community activist she met during the busing era, in 2004. Morrison died in 2008.
In 1985, Ms. Smith spoke with the Globe about the effects of desegregation and busing.
“We’re a very different city today and a better one, with more of a will to deal with the fundamental issues in society and providing services to people,” she said. “We can attribute that to the desegregation order.”
In addition to her brother, brother-in-law, and niece, Ms. Smith leaves two other brothers, Francis of Easton and Paul of Ashburnham; two sisters, Martha Smith Marston of Needham and Maureen Smith Horgan of Westborough; two stepsons, Mark Margulis of Lowell and Neal Margulis of San Diego; and two stepdaughters, Penny Smith of Framingham and Amy DiClemente of Longwood, Fla.
Ms. Smith’s family plans to hold a gathering in early November to celebrate her life and career, and asks that those who wish at attend contact her siblings.
“She was politically sophisticated, very smart, and a terrifically hard worker, always in the service of social change,” Jones said. “They didn’t come any smarter, and they didn’t come any tougher, than Mary Ellen Smith.”