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Priscilla Dewey Houghton, 87; helped children bloom via arts

Mrs. Houghton helped launch Urban Improv, an interactive theater program based in Jamaica Plain.

Mrs. Houghton helped launch Urban Improv, an interactive theater program based in Jamaica Plain.

Already a playwright, lyricist, and poet, Priscilla Dewey Houghton turned her attention 40 years ago to introducing groups of children and adolescents to the joy of creativity. As director of the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, she shaped an approach to arts education that became a model for programs around the world.

“We see so many kids’ lives turned around in this program,” she told the Globe in 1992. “They develop talents that will give them pleasure for the rest of their lives.”

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Thousands of children participated in the Charles River summer program during her nearly two ­decades as director or codirector. Uncounted others benefited when a book she wrote about crafting her program inspired similar arts camps from Alaska to Australia.

“She gave so many people the courage to go into the arts,” said her daughter, Kippy Dewey of ­Jamaica Plain. “Since she died, people have written to say: ‘She made all the difference in my life. The reason I am who I am today is because of Priscilla.’ ”

Mrs. Houghton, whose perseverance through personal and medical adversity was a lesson in equanimity to those closest to her, died July 6 at home in Cohasset. She was 87.

Though she never smoked, she was diagnosed about 25 years ago with lung cancer. Outliving an initial prognosis that she had only months to live,Mrs. Houghton became a prominent advocate for lung cancer research.

She was never a stranger to challenges. Her father died when she was an infant, her mother died when she was 17, and she spent a year in bed in her 30s recovering from polio.

“To me, she was a lesson in how to live life,” said her son Toby Dewey of Brookline. “She had ­polio, she had lung cancer, and she refused to let these things slow her down. She moved on.”

Her first husband, Talbot Dewey, died of cancer in 1983. Six years later, she married Amory Houghton Jr., whose family founded the Corning glass company.

“Somehow, there was this sort of a generator in her that made a bad thing good,” he said. “She developed a sort of inner radiance which permeated everything. She was just endowed with a wonderful, joyous spirit.”

Mrs. Houghton was a Democrat; her husband a moderate Republican. They lived for many years in Washington, D.C., where he spent 18 years as a US representative from Corning, N.Y.

In the increasingly partisan world of politics, the couple set an example in Washington’s power circles of how to discuss issues and disagree without rancor.

“One of the things she did was to bring people together,” he said.

“Falling in love with Amo gave her this whole resurgence,” Kippy said. “They traveled everywhere and met everyone and were so loved. They had this incredible life, and their love story is so beautiful.”

Named for her mother, Priscilla Badger Blackett grew up in Brookline and Wellesley, living much of the time with her grandparents in the years after her father died.

She graduated from Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, was a debutante in 1942, attended Pine Manor College in Brookline, and was a member of the Junior League when she married Talbot Dewey in 1946.

They lived for many years in Millis, where Mrs. Houghton began writing musicals that children performed in a barn in town.

Before the polio diagnosis, she had been an avid skier and rode horses. After recovering, she became more involved with writing and theater.

Her poems were published in the Globe and other publications.She wrote the book and lyrics for the musical “Two If By Sea,” which premiered in New England and moved to Off-Broadway in New York City, where it was received more warmly by audiences than theater critics.

Over the years, she wrote several musicals while returning to school. She studied at the School at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and received a master’s degree in theater arts from Goddard College’s branch in Cambridge.

“She was just an incredibly talented woman, but it all came down to people, how she loved people and connected with people and believed in the people,” her son said.

Those connections flowered when she took over the fledgling Creative Arts Program at the Charles River School in Dover.

“She was an incredibly warm, loving, accepting, and giving person, and made everybody feel special,” her daughter said. “She cared so much about what you were doing and what was going on in your life.”

Inspired by a program she had worked with in Washington, Mrs. Houghton also became a driving force behind launching Urban Improv, an interactive theater program based in Jamaica Plain that teaches conflict resolution and violence prevention to youth.

In 2004, Pine Manor College awarded her an honorary doctorate for her years of work in the arts.

By then, she was many years past her cancer diagnosis, but she never feared death, her husband said.

“She always had this deep, deep faith,” he said. “I was so lucky. God gave me the chance to be with Priscilla.”

In addition to her husband, daughter, and son, Mrs. Houghton leaves another son, Peter Dewey of Hull; two stepsons, Amory Houghton III of New York City and Robert Houghton of Acton; two stepdaughters, Sarah Houghton of Fairfield, Conn., and Quincy Houghton of Los Angeles; a brother, William Blackett of Rhode Island; eight grandchildren; nine step-grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in Trinity Church in Boston.

The Charles River Creative Arts Program reflected the breadth of Mrs. Houghton’s interests. Just as she combined athleticism with aesthetic pursuits, the program’s offerings ranged from music to sports, crafts to dance and drama.

She knew, too, that the most important lesson she could offer children was how to aspire to greatness.

“A lot of them take their first risks here,” Mrs. Houghton told the Globe in 1984.

“When you were in her presence, she gave you tremendous attention and devotion,” her son said. “She elevated you.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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