Nancy Harrington was 16 when she arrived as a freshman on the campus of what was then Salem Teachers College.
And aside from a break to complete a doctorate at Boston University, there she stayed for more than 50 years until she retired as president, in 2007, after notching a trio of historic firsts.
Dr. Harrington, the first woman, the first Salem State graduate, and the first person who grew up in Salem to serve as president at the institution, died Dec. 12. She was 81 and had been rushed to North Shore Medical Center after suffering an apparent heart attack, her family said in a death notice.
“Those of us who knew President Harrington knew of her talent, leadership and deep commitment to our students,” John D. Keenan, president of what is now Salem State University, said in a statement the school posted online. “Indeed, her vision for Salem State College paved the way for us to become Salem State University in 2010.”
The elevation from college to university status was a proposal a predecessor to Dr. Harrington had initially floated, and one she pursued during her 17-year tenure as president that began in 1990.
“I just know that Salem State is a university right now in everything but name,” she told the Globe in October 2006, a month after announcing that she planned to retire at the end of that academic year.
Along with her groundbreaking roles as president, arguably no one did as much to set the stage for Salem State becoming a university.
Dr. Harrington was named president after four people had served in that role in the previous few years.
“It was a very fractured campus,” she said in 2006.
Salem State also had been battered by budget cuts, with state aid accounting for millions less in 1991, her first full year as president, than in 1988.
An adept fund-raiser, Dr. Harrington secured substantial donations and was successful in turning around the state aid slump.
During her years as president, she oversaw increasing the number of faculty members by one-third, doubling the number of undergraduate courses, and adding more than two dozen additional master’s degree programs.
“To me, she’s the best president that the college ever had,” longtime popular English professor Jay McHale, who died in 2018, told the Globe when Dr. Harrington announced her retirement.
Committed to expanding Salem State physically as well as intellectually, Dr. Harrington oversaw the purchase in the late 1990s of the 38-acre former GTE/Sylvania site that was a few blocks from the main campus.
Dr. Harrington also was a prominent voice in the state’s education issues. In 1998, when a significant number of aspiring teachers failed the Massachusetts teachers’ test, she penned an opinion piece for the Globe that placed that startling moment in the context of what was happening throughout the state.
“Teacher candidates have, in essence, become the canaries in the coal mines of state education — a bittersweet opportunity for all,” she wrote, adding that “schools of education do not exist in a vacuum. They serve a society that must reevaluate its vision of public education and, hence, its expectations of teachers.”
Dr. Harrington offered potential steps to improve the lot of teachers, including encouraging the state’s lawmakers and taxpayers to “get serious about teacher compensation. It’s tough to market a profession that isn’t valued.”
And she also saw cause for parents to play a more rigorous role at a time when TVs, rather than phones, were perceived as the main distraction in children’s lives.
“Our children are too distracted and overstimulated,” Dr. Harrington wrote. “They learn from the time they’re 8 months old that everything has to be upbeat, entertaining, and micro-seconded. The reality is that learning can be hard and boring sometimes.”
Born in Salem in 1939, Nancy D. Harrington was a daughter of Leo Harrington and Nora Sullivan and grew up in what her family characterized, in its obituary tribute, as “a financially disadvantaged household.”
As committed to her childhood neighborhood as she was to her alma mater, Dr. Harrington co-chaired a capital campaign to raise money to renovate Ames Memorial Hall at the YMCA of the North Shore.
“I grew up very close to the Y in downtown Salem, so it was a very important part of my life growing up,” she said of Ames Memorial Hall in a 2014 Globe interview, when the building had a grand reopening. “They used to hold teen dances, free orchestra performances, and lots of other activities.”
Dr. Harrington was part of an extended family of Salem and North Shore political leaders. Her relatives include former Salem mayor Neil Harrington, the late state Senate president Kevin Harrington, and former US representative Michael Harrington.
She attended public schools in Salem and attended Salem State, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, both in education.
After receiving a doctorate in education from Boston University, she returned to Salem State and taught at the college’s Horace Mann Laboratory School, where she rose to become principal.
Before Dr. Harrington was named president of Salem State, her jobs there included serving as dean of continuing education and special programs, dean of graduate and continuing education, associate vice president of academic affairs in graduate and continuing education, and acting vice president of academic affairs.
“As Salem State’s first female and 12th president, she was a trailblazer and mentor to many,” Keenan said in his statement.
At the Horace Mann Laboratory School, Dr. Harrington was known for her ability to quiet all the students by simply raising her fingers in a peace sign.
“You keep the peace better than anyone we know,” the students wrote on a poster they gave her as a gift when she left the principal’s job to become dean of continuing education.
Ever after, Dr. Harrington displayed that poster in the offices for all the jobs she held.
Maureen Hines, Dr. Harrington’s life partner of 60 years, died in May. Hines, also a Salem State graduate, had been an elementary school teacher in Salem’s school system.
Dr. Harrington’s parents, sister, and brothers also have died. She leaves nieces and nephews, who said in their death notice that they will announce a celebration of Dr. Harrington’s life next year.
“Her passing marks the end of an extraordinary life,” Dr. Harrington’s family wrote, adding that “she was a true personage; a trailblazer, role model, and an authentic phenomenon.”
In 2000, when racist and anti-gay slurs were scrawled on dormitory message boards and on a vehicle just off campus, Dr. Harrington set the tone for the response from Salem State and the community itself.
“The college will not condone such acts of intolerance,” she wrote in a letter to students and staff.
In an opinion piece for the Globe, she outlined steps everyone could take.
The college “has learned a painful but important lesson as a result of the turbulence that has marred the opening weeks of a promising new academic year,” she wrote. “We have been reminded that the only way to respond to hate is to confront it — immediately, vigorously, and resoundingly.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.