Mary Walsh grew up in a three-decker in Brighton, down the street from Boston College.
Her parents were immigrants. Her father worked in a rubber factory in Watertown. He met her mother on the Cape, where she worked as a domestic for a wealthy family.
“My father grew up in Ireland, and his mother would rush him out the door to school, saying, ‘Hurry, before they have you work on the farm,’” Mary Walsh said.
David Walsh didn’t make it past fourth grade, but he valued education and instilled its importance in the inquisitive mind of his daughter.
“Darlin’,” David Walsh told her, “the greatest gift I ever got in this country was a library card.”
At the urging of their pharmacist, David Walsh brought his daughter and her report card to see the nuns at Mount St. Joseph Academy.
She had to take an entrance exam. Mary Walsh and her friend Dorothy Connors agreed to take the test together. When Mary stopped at Dorothy’s on the way to the test, Dorothy’s mother noticed Mary didn’t have a pencil or ruler, which were required to take the test. She rummaged through a drawer and found a pencil for Mary, but Dorothy had their only ruler.
So Dorothy’s mother grabbed a corset and removed a metal stay that was exactly 12 inches long.
With a borrowed pencil and makeshift ruler, Mary Walsh passed the test, got a full scholarship to Mount St. Joseph’s and just kept going. She got her bachelor’s at Catholic University, her doctorate in clinical-developmental psychology at Clark University.
In 1989, she landed on the faculty at Boston College, shouting distance from her childhood home. At BC, she did more than teach education. She revolutionized it.
Her upbringing informed everything she did. She had involved parents, a stable home, a local community that supported her. Her academic research was at the intersection of children and poverty.
“I was poor,” she said, “but I had opportunities.”
She began working with children who did not have those opportunities, whose parents don’t speak English, who are malnourished, homeless, who are not succeeding in school for all those reasons and more.
At schools across Massachusetts, she met children who would get on and get off school buses at different locations, trying to hide the fact that they were homeless.
“These little kids had to wear the same clothes every day, because that’s all they had,” she said. “I learned what poverty does to the hearts and minds of children.”
Her idea was to get schools to create individual plans for students with supports and services for academics and physical and mental health, while taking into consideration their at-home situations.
“They might need glasses, or they haven’t been to the dentist in three years. Mom works until 8 at night, so they need a dinner plan,” she said.
In Pat DiNatale, a Boston Public Schools principal, she found the perfect cohort.
“Pat helped me figure out how we could help schools do this work without asking teachers to be social workers,” Mary Walsh said.
With foundation grants, they launched what in 2001 would become City Connects as a pilot program in Allston-Brighton and Mission Hill. After three years, they had data showing academic outcomes for elementary students in City Connects had improved dramatically.
Operating out of the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children at BC, City Connects is now helping 50,000 kids in Massachusetts, eight other states, and Ireland, the country Mary Walsh’s parents left for a better life.
For all she’s done for poor children, Mary Walsh deserved a medal. On Monday, at BC’s commencement, she got one.
BC President William Leahy handed her the Bellarmine Award, named for an Italian cardinal who was a leading intellectual figure in the Counter-Reformation. St. Bellarmine was canonized in 1930.
Appropriate, because what Mary Walsh has done to help poor kids is the work of a saint.
She never forgot where she came from, or that everybody needs a little help sometime.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.