Ten years and tens of thousands of theater tickets ago, the Marilyn Rodman Theatre for Kids program began with a simple conversation.
Having long lent assistance to the many philanthropic efforts of her husband, Don, who owns Rodman Ford in Foxborough, Mrs. Rodman offered a suggestion one day that ended up filling Boston’s theater seats with city children who had never before seen a play or musical and might otherwise never get the chance, but for the free tickets.
“I always on my own sent kids to sporting events,” Don said. “She must have gotten a little frustrated with me after a while, and she said, ‘You know, Don, there is another world out there.’ ”
That other world evolved over the past decade into the Theater for Kids program, which has worked with Broadway in Boston and another family charity, the Rodman Ride for Kids. Since its inception in 2003, the theater program has routinely bought out every seat in the house to send about 50,000 youths to a string of Boston performances, among them “South Pacific,” “Lion King,” and “A Chorus Line.”
Mrs. Rodman, who also served for more than two decades on the Canton School Committee, died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease May 13 in Orchard Cove retirement community in Canton. She was 79.
In 2006, town officials honored her service to the community by renaming a school building the Marilyn G. Rodman Educational & Administrative Center.
“Everything she did came from her heart,” Selectman John J. Connolly told the Globe that year.
“She was very compassionate,” Glen Hannington, who formerly served on the School Committee with Mrs. Rodman and Connolly, said in an interview. “She listened, and she was very respectful. And when she spoke, everyone listened. She was soft spoken, but she had a very large impact on discussions.”
Mrs. Rodman, who at times was the only woman on the School Committee, was used to making her voice heard in a crowd of men. She had five sons, and “sometimes it felt she had six sons, to be honest,” her husband recalled with a chuckle, including himself in the total.
When she pushed ideas, they often were about the arts. Serving during years when the School Committee regularly had to trim the budget, she worked to ensure the survival of arts education. She also lent time and assistance to local and state organizations that promoted the arts.
“Her biggest legacy is the arts,” Hannington said. “There’s no doubt that’s what she’ll forever be known for.”
Mrs. Rodman also created or helped support initiatives such as a reading program for students, an employee-assistance program for teachers, and a special education program. Canton teachers honored her as a friend of education, and last year, she was the recipient of the Charles E. Rogerson Award for Community Service.
“If you’ve got the right passion, you’re going to do a good job,” her husband said. “She never had any other agenda other than doing what’s right and helping kids.”
The older of two daughters, whose father was an Italian immigrant and whose mother was a Russian immigrant, Marilyn Cipoletta grew up in Roxbury and graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School.
Don Rodman was in the US Army and stationed in Sacramento when a neighbor set him up on a blind date while he was home in Boston on leave. He was 19; she was 17.
“I wanted to get married, and her father’s comment was, ‘If he loves you, tell him to wait until he gets out of the service,’ ” Don recalled.
They courted by telephone and, upon his return, they married on Nov. 23, 1952.
“I felt very blessed to have her as my wife,” he said. “To know Marilyn was to love Marilyn. She was very special, and not just for me.”
In the days since she died “the outpouring has been amazing,” he said. “I can’t believe how many people have come forth, that I didn’t even know, who said she had an impact on their lives.”
Chief among those whose lives she touched were her husband, sons, and their families.
“Some would say that my mother was our rock, but, most importantly for our family she was our glue; she held us together,” her son Curtis of Canton said in a eulogy at a memorial service earlier this month.
“Our mom’s smile was the sunshine that would brighten your darkest day,” he said in the eulogy. “Her laughter was contagious. She was life! Our mom had the unique gift to find the passionate words to lift you up. Mom was the person that comforted me when I was sad, Mom was the person that laughed with me when I was happy, Mom was the person that calmed me when I was angry.”
Mary Kinsella Scannell, a vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester, was a longtime friend who visited Mrs. Rodman weekly during her years of illness.
“I always left our time together with a new piece of knowledge, an idea or an inspiration,” she said in a eulogy.
“I remember when I learned Marilyn’s middle name was Grace and thought, of course it is,” she added. Even as illness took its toll, “it could never take away her grace. There was always a sense of elegance about Marilyn that shone through.”
Hannington recalled that during Mrs. Rodman’s many years on the School Committee, “she was an elegant lady who you respected. She never raised her voice. She was always on an even keel. To argue with her would be like arguing against the American flag and apple pie.”
In addition to her husband and her son Curtis, Mrs. Rodman leaves four other sons, Gene of Braintree, Craig of Natick, Brett of Canton, and Bart of Braintree; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In her eulogy, Kinsella Scannell quoted from a note her daughter Julia wrote after Mrs. Rodman died: “Because of Marilyn, I learned a lot. I learned that when you make a promise you keep it, I learned that it is important to give back to others.”
At the service, Mrs. Rodman’s son Curtis recalled that she “shared your love and kindness with everyone you met. You never took life for granted.”
And her family didn’t take her for granted, either. Don Rodman said that when he speaks with teenagers, “I always say to them the most important decision you’re going to make in your entire life is who is going to be your mate. And that’s the truth. And I was very lucky.”