At The Winsor School, where she taught French for 30 years, Mimi Minkoff often spoke with colleagues about “having a classroom where people could take risks and make mistakes,” said Laura Houlette, a longtime friend and fellow French teacher.
“Her classroom,” Houlette added, “was a place of trust.”
That haven was present wherever Ms. Minkoff went. A hallway conversation with a student might lead them to pause, sit for a while, and discuss life’s choices and challenges.
“She’s my other mother,” said Cheryl Hagan, who studied French with Ms. Minkoff and will attend Wesleyan University this fall. “She was a great listener and I felt like I could tell her anything, and she had sound advice whenever I needed it. She really did feel like another mother, someone who you could really trust and would guide you in the right direction.”
Ms. Minkoff, the first teacher to hold the Rebecca Willard chair in languages at The Winsor School, died of liver cancer last Friday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was 52 and lived in Newton.
“There was never an accidental moment in the classroom,” said Jim Jer-Don, who teaches Spanish at the girls’ private school in Boston. “There was so much reflection and intentionality in her teaching, but don’t mistake that for rigid.”
Ms. Minkoff, he added, “wouldn’t come in and have a strict class plan. Mimi was an innovative and creative teacher. It wasn’t ever, open up the file drawer and pull out last year’s work. It was: ‘Who are the kids in front of me today? Clearly this is what’s on their minds, so this is where I’m going to go.’ ”
According to a school tribute, Ms. Minkoff once said there is “not one way to connect or contribute. There are hundreds of different ways, as many different ways as there are girls.”
If a student “was naturally shy, or maybe didn’t get the material, she knew that and would help them along,” Hagan recalled. “She was very intuitive about that and it worked really well in the classroom. She was very special.”
Early in her tenure, after joining the faculty in 1983, Ms. Minkoff received the Ellen Endicott Forbes Award. Through the years she also served as acting head of the Lower School and as class coordinator for three different grades. She was acting head of the modern language department, served on search committees, was an interviewer for admissions, and even learned a new language when the school was shy a Spanish teacher.
French for Ms. Minkoff was an encompassing subject. Along with vocabulary and verbs, she developed a class trip to Quebec and introduced students to everything from culture to food.
“I know how profoundly she influenced the hundreds of students whom she has taught here, and how much she was admired and loved in return,” Rachel Friis Stettler, the school’s director, wrote in a message to students and families after Ms. Minkoff died.
Though known to all as Mimi, she was born Maria Suzanne Minkoff, the third of four children, and grew up in the St. Louis area, where she rode horses in her youth.
Ms. Minkoff “was very thoughtful, taking care of everyone in the house, even at an early age,” said her younger sister, Jenny Rau of Incline Village, Nev.
“She always kept me safe,” Rau said. “She was always there, just a few steps ahead. She never told me how to live my life. She watched me and looked back to make sure I was there, but she never judged me.”
Their brother Larry of Bozeman, Mont., said that in a way she “became the caretaker of the family. We very quickly scattered to the corners of the country. There was a lot of distance between us. The glue was Mimi. Because she went to the trouble of keeping contact, she kept the family together.”
Ms. Minkoff, he added, “never seemed to miss an anniversary or a birthday. She understood the significance of events.”
After graduating from John Burroughs School, a prep school in St. Louis, Ms. Minkoff went to Smith College. Studying French and studio art, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1982 and received a master’s from Middlebury College in 1988.
Her father, an executive with a hat manufacturing company, died near the end of her senior year at Smith. She returned to St. Louis to teach for a year and be with her mother and younger sister.
While at Smith, Ms. Minkoff met Bruce Kelly at a party. A Williams College student, he had agreed somewhat reluctantly to accompany a friend to the gathering, only to end up meeting Ms. Minkoff.
“She was pretty, intelligent,” he recalled. “She had a quirky view of life, a quirky sensibility.”
During the first year after graduating, when he was home in Norway, Maine, and she was in St. Louis, they alternated taking daylong bus trips to visit each other. They married in 1986 and lived in Cambridge before moving to Newton four years later.
When Ms. Minkoff reached 20 years at The Winsor School, Carolyn Peter, then the director, noted that Ms. Minkoff actually had “two Bruces in her life: her husband and Bruce Springsteen. Just tell her your mood, and she can play the song you need to hear.”
With a mind and cultural tastes that ranged widely, Ms. Minkoff was equally devoted to art house movies and a 1972 Chevy Impala that she only sold after it was falling apart.
But among her many interests and work demands, “nothing really meant more to Mimi than our daughter,” Ms. Minkoff’s husband said. Sophie Kelly, now 19, developed a talent for art that Ms. Minkoff encouraged.
In Ms. Minkoff’s Newton neighborhood, where her front yard was ideal for sitting in the sun and reading, “what I noticed was that she knew everyone’s name and remembered details about them, and asked them questions,” said Lisa Diller, a longtime friend who lived nearby.
While raising their children, pushing strollers together through the center of Newton, “I’d say, ‘Mimi, how do you know all these people?’ And then I realized that she knew them because she cared to reach out and make a connection,” Diller said.
In addition to her husband, daughter, brother, and sister, Ms. Minkoff leaves her mother, Dennet [Dalton] of Carson City, Nev.; and another brother, Ken of Alpine Meadows, Calif.
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton.
Irreverent when the occasion offered, Ms. Minkoff “had a sort of scatological sense of humor,” Diller said, and that continued after the cancer diagnosis in March.
More concerned with how her illness affected others, Ms. Minkoff tried to ease their burdens.
“She was the smartest, funniest person I’ve ever known,” Ms. Minkoff’s sister said. “Her sense of humor was so sharp, so witty, and she kept that through to the end. It was just incredible. There were days I spent in the hospital, curled up next to her, and we just laughed.”