As a guidance counselor in the Weston Public Schools for a quarter century, Mary Frenning was known for her compassion, her tenacity, her thoroughly researched recommendation letters, and her talent for uncovering the strengths of each child.
“Guidance counselors have to earn the trust of the students and really understand their issues, and they also have to ensure that policies and the law are adhered to,” said Daniel Cheever, former superintendent of schools in Weston. “Mary was incredibly skilled at playing both those roles. She was always able to find the common ground that would work for everyone.”
Mrs. Frenning, who also was known for her extensive volunteer work and her involvement in her husband’s political career, died of cardiac dysrhythmia in her Northport, Maine, home Feb. 5.She was 87 and lived most of her adult life in Wellesley.
In Weston, she worked in the middle school and high school and often counseled students through many of their school years.
Paul Davis, an entrepreneur and corporate executive who stayed in touch with Mrs. Frenning long after she was his guidance counselor, described her as “a great influence, full of energy and enthusiasm.”
“Although she spent most of her life working with young people, she was always the person who was youngest at heart in any room she was in,” Davis said. “She was very creative about her work, always trying to figure out how she could have the most impact.”
Ginny Smith Alterio, a Wellesley neighbor and longtime friend, said Mrs. Frenning spent hours considering the strengths and weaknesses of children and then planning how the school system could serve them best.
“She would never give up,” said Alterio, an early childhood educator. “She would help push a child through until she got them to where they needed to go, and she would always do it with a positive attitude.”
Mary Wotton was born in Rockland, Maine. Her father was the state basketball commissioner and she played center for her Rockland High School basketball team.
She attended Fisher Junior College and then worked as a secretary while living in Boston and continuing her education.
After graduating from Boston University in 1953 she became involved with the group then known as the Greater Boston Young Republicans Club, where she met John W. Frenning, who planned to run for state representative. She became his campaign manager.
“The story goes that he said to her: ‘It looks as if we’re going to win. If we do, let’s get married,’ ” said their daughter, Ann Frenning Kossuth of Medford. He was elected, and they married in 1960.
John Frenning represented the Back Bay six years with the constant support of his wife, who became his chief strategist, their daughter said. Together, she said, her parents worked on legislation designed to eliminate discrimination, reduce pollution, and bring about urban renewal.
During those years Mrs. Frenning was an active BU alumna and served on the board of Human Relations Service, a mental health agency in Wellesley for children and families. She also counseled inmates at MCI-Framingham, a medium-security prison for women.
Mrs. Frenning’s husband encouraged her to pursue a career in education, which led to her taking the guidance counselor job at Weston.
“He challenged her to be more than she’d thought she would be,” their daughter said.
In 1973, Mrs. Frenning graduated with a master’s in education from BU, where she took night classes while working in Weston and raising her daughter.
Mrs. Frenning officially retired in 1990. She and her husband moved to Maine, where she “promptly unretired” a month later, her daughter said. For the next nine years Mrs. Frenning worked as an educational consultant with the Maine School Administrative District 34 and devoted herself to volunteer work.
Along with founding a family services agency, she served as board member and cochaired an organization that worked to prevent child abuse and neglect. Mrs. Frenning’s other work included counseling teenage mothers, developing a peer leadership program, working for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and serving as head of recruiting and placement for the Waldo County affiliate of Literacy Volunteers.
In 2000, she cofounded the Senior College at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, one of the state’s 17 education programs for senior citizens. In addition to serving as the school’s vice chairwoman and committee leader on membership, public relations, and volunteering, Mrs. Frenning took classes and taught classes.
Jim Patterson, who cofounded the Senior College and was the school’s director, called Mrs. Frenning a “force of nature.”
“She was the kind of person who walked into the room and she was just electric,” he said. “She was the driving force behind the college because of the strength of her personality.”
Thanks to her efforts, he said, the school became the second largest of the state’s senior colleges. She recruited retired professors as teachers, and developed and helped teach a popular class on the lives of the wives of former presidents.
“Mary was so good at encouraging seniors who hadn’t had the opportunity to go to college,” Patterson said. “She got them to sign up for classes and really eased them into the college setting.”
Despite all her hard work, he said, “she never asked for a dime, and she never received a dime.”
Community groups, historic associations, and the Belfast, Maine, public library all benefited from her volunteer work. In 2009, she was named citizen of the year by the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce.
When she was not working, her daughter said, Mrs. Frenning enjoyed reading, baking, listening to opera, following local politics, and studying her family’s history in Maine, which spanned 10 generations. Her daughter said she also liked to spend time with the “the apple of her eye,” her granddaughter, Lucy.
Mrs. Frenning was also a “wicked card player, very competitive,” her daughter said.
Mr. Frenning died in 2002.
A memorial service has been held for Mrs. Frenning who, in addition to her daughter and granddaughter leaves a sister, Ruth Wotton Wilson of Oakland, Maine.
“She was a wonderful person, so warm and giving,” said Alterio. “You could always call on Mary for anything.”