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Marilyn Abel, who opened the world of music to special needs students, dies at 90

Marilyn Abel, with Debbie Lewis at Special Needs Arts Programs' concert in Lexington last year.Special Needs Arts Programs Inc.

Nearly 40 years ago, while Marilyn Abel was teaching special needs students in Lexington, she realized that some arrived at school each Monday with no stories about what they had done over the weekend, so she decided to create an extracurricular activity for them.

“She really wanted them to be accepted as part of the community, not as something separate, and felt that starting a small chorus was the way to do it,” said her closest friend, Judy Goldner. “She asked if I was interested in helping and I said, ‘Absolutely.’‘‘

The two, both musicians, founded a chorus in 1981 that grew into Special Needs Arts Programs Inc., a Lexington nonprofit that has provided creative opportunities to thousands of developmentally disabled youths and adults and to their family members.


Mrs. Abel, who was 90 when she died of cancer July 6 at her Lasell Village home in Newton, “was someone who looked beyond what separates us to what connects us,” said Heidi O’Mara, the organization’s executive director.

“She saw in our participants all their potential as singers,” O’Mara added. “She just treated people as human beings, and not as a disabled person. It was really a peer-to-peer relationship.”

A classically trained singer and piano teacher, Mrs. Abel found that music was a language that transcended barriers with her special needs students. She would tell stories of seemingly nonverbal students who suddenly responded when she sang to them.

“She realized that she really understood how to use music and movement to communicate with children who couldn’t communicate in any other way,” said her daughter, Deborah, who lives in Carlisle.

Mrs. Abel also taught others how to look past differences.

Along with the special needs youths and adults choirs, “we wanted to have some non-special needs volunteers so they would get to know each other and they’d all be part of the greater community, not separate,” Goldner recalled.


That mingling of abilities — musically and on all other levels — became part of the organization’s draw, and its magic in performances.

The other important idea, Goldner added, “was to have the audience sing along, and that’s what the chorus was called, the Sing Along Chorus.”

The name later became Special Needs Arts Fund and then Special Needs Arts Programs.

Arts and crafts programs were added a dozen years ago, O’Mara said, and the organization now draws participants from 33 communities.

O’Mara said parents of youths and adults who participated in past choral performances sent emotional tributes after hearing that Mrs. Abel had died, praising her for welcoming their children when they were unwelcome elsewhere.

Parents accustomed to hearing the word “no” would tell Mrs. Abel about their children’s challenges, “basically thinking she would say, ‘Forget it,’ and with no hesitation she would say, ‘Of course they can join,’‘‘ O’Mara said.

The oldest of three siblings, Marilyn Jacobs was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on July 14, 1929. Her parents were Rose Venger Jacobs and Jerome Jacobs, who ran a party supplies business in that New York City suburb.

As a girl, Mrs. Abel showed musical talent, first teaching herself on the piano and later training as a singer and a pianist.

“Music is her heart, her soul, her self-expression, her deep love,” Deborah said during a Zoom celebration of her mother’s life.


Mrs. Abel graduated from what was then A.B. Davis High School in Mount Vernon, which she attended at the same time as future “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark. She went on to study English at New York University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

One summer a friend wanted to set her up on a date with Ed Abel, but Marilyn was working as a counselor at a camp in the Berkshires. Ed met and fell in love with Marilyn’s sister, Harriet, instead. They then brought along Ed’s brother, Irving, to visit Marilyn in Massachusetts, and the brothers married the sisters — Marilyn and Irving in 1951 just months after they met.

Irving Abel, who had been an optical physicist at Honeywell, died in 2017.

The couple had lived in Connecticut before moving in the early 1960s to Lexington, where Mrs. Abel met Goldner.

“We had a lot in common,” Goldner recalled. “We’re both musicians, and both performed, and both taught. Our husbands were both engineers, and they were both runners.”

With her memorable soprano voice, Mrs. Abel performed with the Lexington Music Club, serving as president in the mid-1980s and again in the late ’90s.

Mrs. Abel also returned to school, graduating from what was then Lesley College with a master’s in education and focusing her studies on using music as therapy.

“She had a series of unfoldings in her life,” Deborah said in an interview. “She learned that she had these skills working with children.”


And it was while working as a special needs teacher that Mrs. Abel recognized the void in their lives — the extracurricular activities available to other students.

“Things have changed now,” she told the Globe in 2007, “but at the time, people with special needs could be very isolated.”

With proceeds from a voice recital she had given, Mrs. Abel and Goldner launched their special needs choral program.

As Mrs. Abel guided the early Sing Along Chorus into a sustaining organization, “she was warm, gracious, kind. She remembered everything,” O’Mara recalled. “She remembered birthdays, if someone had a new baby, if someone passed away — she remembered milestones.”

Gentle with everyone, especially those with special needs, Mrs. Abel “always listened carefully to what they had to say,” Goldner said. “She was very observant of people’s behavior — their physical as well as their verbal behavior — and that made the difference.”

For decades, Mrs. Abel and her husband traveled each summer to Monhegan Island in Maine with their daughters, Deborah and Elisa, and then with Deborah’s husband and son, Lee and Caleb Perlman.

There were always opportunities to converse and to share the wisdom of her years.

“When she came to visit me at college,” Caleb recalled in the Zoom gathering, “she and I sat on the stoop of the chapel so we could soak in the sun for an hour or so while talking about what makes for purposeful work in this world.”

In her last few years, Mrs. Abel took care of her husband as he became ill and died, and then her daughter Elisa, who died of cancer last year.


“The sheer energy she mustered care-taking both Dad and Elisa intensely and nonstop for three years straight was amazing,” Deborah said during the Zoom gathering. “I watched her give selflessly, truly selflessly, never ever thinking about herself or complaining.”

In addition to Deborah, Lee, and Caleb, Mrs. Abel leaves her sister, Harriet of Norwalk, Conn.

As a special needs teacher and a choral director, “she actually called herself a therapeutic musician,” Goldner said. “I thought that was great.”

Her legacy continues in the organization the two created.

“Sometimes when there’s a person with a disability, that disability defines them, and Marilyn wanted to break that barrier,” O’Mara said. “More than creating a program, she wanted to create a community. She wanted to provide friendships.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.