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Edith Stokey, founding mother of JFK School at Harvard, 88

EDITH STOKEY

Long considered the unofficial “founding mother’’ of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Edith Stokey was an economist, a teacher, a researcher, an author, an administrator, a mother, and more, but one of her most cherished roles was citizen.

“Her sense of citizenship was extraordinary,’’ her son Roger of Falmouth said in a eulogy during her memorial service Saturday in First Parish in Wayland. “She considered the right to vote sacrosanct and never missed voting in an election her entire life: not a primary, not a general election, and never a Town Meeting.’’

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When Mrs. Stokey fell ill a week before Christmas, her children considered strategies that would allow her to vote in the 2012 primary and general elections.

“We didn’t want to mess up her perfect record,’’ said her daughter Lucy of Pembroke.

Mrs. Stokey, lecturer emerita in public policy at the Kennedy School, died of cancer Jan. 16 in her Cambridge home at 88.

Mary Jo Bane, former academic dean at the Kennedy School, said she opened doors for women at the institution.

“In 1987, I became the first woman to hold the title of tenured professor at the Kennedy School,’’ Bane said in a statement issued by the school, adding that she also “became the first woman to hold the title of academic dean. I use the language of ‘hold the title’ quite consciously, because I am not the first woman to do the jobs; Edith is.’’

Bane said “the fact Edith did the jobs, and did them so well, laid the groundwork for those of us lucky enough to be born a generation later to both do the jobs, though probably not as well, and to hold the titles.’’

Born Edith Morton Robinson in Mansfield in 1923, Mrs. Stokey graduated from Radcliffe College with a degree in economics in 1943. Weeks earlier, she had married Roger Provines Stokey, a US Navy officer in World War II, while he was on weekend leave. They had met at a college mixer.

While her husband served overseas, Mrs. Stokey worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, studying patterns of underwater sound for the Office of Naval Research. After the war, the Stokeys returned to school, he for a law degree, she for a master’s degree in mathematics. Then they moved to Wayland to raise their family.

In a biography for her 65th high school reunion in 2005, Mrs. Stokey recalled their “typical suburban life,’’ saying that “Roger practiced law in Boston; I chased after four children and kept busy in local politics.’’

When he was elected town moderator in Wayland, she realized that she wanted something more for herself.

“He thoroughly enjoyed the job,’’ she wrote of the position her husband held for about two decades. “I did not enjoy it at all; the moderator’s spouse was expected to keep her mouth shut the year round and sit in the back row knitting during the town meetings.’’

She returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in economics, but set aside those plans when she was recruited in 1971 to teach microeconomics and public-sector operations research and to serve as secretary of the newly established Kennedy School.

“She was called secretary, but she was more like the secretary of state,’’ said Joseph McCarthy, former senior associate dean and director of degree programs. “She had a great talent for running an institution of higher education.’’

He called Mrs. Stokey a bridge between the “great economic minds of the faculty’’ and their students, adding that her sense of empathy for those who were studying at the school “was remarkable.’’

Mrs. Stokey estimated that she taught more than 2,000 graduate students at the Kennedy School. She was eventually named associate academic dean.

“She really ran the school,’’ said the current dean, David T. Ellwood. “She was a den mother, a collaborator on research, and a teacher extraordinaire. She was legendary.’’

An oil portrait of Mrs. Stokey that hangs outside Ellwood’s office honors her contributions to the school. In 1978, she coauthored a book, “A Primer for Policy Analysis,’’ that is still used in classrooms nationwide.

Besides teaching, Mrs. Stokey helped design the Kennedy School curriculum and admissions policies. In 2000, she retired and became a lecturer emerita, but until last summer retained her office and continued to teach and guide students.

Mrs. Stokey had a particular affection for international students. She was very involved in the Kennedy School’s application process, often traveling overseas to interview prospective students.

Her daughter Elizabeth of Lincoln recalled accompanying Mrs. Stokey, then in her 70s, to India. Mrs. Stokey brought along 122 applications.

“While I toured Delhi, she sat for days in an office somewhere and did interviews,’’ Elizabeth said in an e-mail. “We then visited Sri Lanka together.’’

Afterward, Elizabeth added, Mrs. Stokey flew to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Israel for more interviews. “She was indefatigable,’’ her daughter said.

Mrs. Stokey’s interest in Sri Lanka crystallized after she and her husband, who died in 1985, befriended a Harvard exchange student in 1958. Sam Wijesinha brought his wife and children to the Stokey home for Christmas later that year and returned to live with the family for six weeks the following summer.

In the years since, the two families visited each other’s homes frequently, and friendships among the Stokey and Wijesinha children and grandchildren flourished.

“Aunt Edith was a truly unique and remarkable human being,’’ Wijesinha’s daughter Anila wrote in a letter to the family. “Such a tiny and indomitable woman, she embodied warmth and generosity . . . humor, unquestionable integrity, and an amazing intellect.’’

In addition to her son Roger and daughters Lucy and Elizabeth, Mrs. Stokey leaves a third daughter, Mary Allerton of Cambridge, and three grandchildren.

Until her death, Mrs. Stokey divided her time between her Cambridge home and the family’s Scraggy Neck vacation house on Cape Cod.

Mrs. Stokey loved planning family get-togethers, Lucy said, and her greatest achievement may have been coordinating logistics of her own 1943 wedding. Roger Stokey arrived in Mansfield on Friday, and they planned the celebration for the following Monday.

While the couple corralled friends and arranged for their marriage license, neighbors offered rationing coupons to get sugar for the cake. Then Mrs. Stokey took a train to Boston to find a wedding cake topper with a groom in Navy uniform.

“She couldn’t find it,’’ Lucy said, “but she found one with a groom dressed as a Marine. So she bought some paint, presented the miniature bride and groom to her aunt, and said, ‘Can you make him a Navy man?’ And she did. It all came together.’’

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