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Mary Eliot, 91; teacher made Greek history come alive

Mary Eliot working with a student. When she taught fourth grade, the year’s curriculum featured everything Greek.
Mary Eliot working with a student. When she taught fourth grade, the year’s curriculum featured everything Greek.Susan Lapides

Mary Eliot was known to slide her small-framed glasses to the tip of her nose and peer over them when her pupils’ conversations slipped off topic at Shady Hill School.

A strict, caring teacher and administrator at the private school in Cambridge, she focused on curriculum during her 41 years there, bringing the imagination of children to life, especially when she taught Greek history to her fourth-grade class.

But when they misbehaved, she let them know who was in charge, peering over her glasses.

“Somehow, those glasses slipped to the bottom of her nose,” recalled her former colleague Bruce Shaw, “and she would say, ‘What is it that we’re talking about here?’ ”

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Ms. Eliot died of a heart attack Nov. 7 in South Shore Medical Center in Norwell. She was 91 and had lived in Cambridge and Marshfield.

When she taught fourth grade, the year’s curriculum featured everything Greek, remembered state Treasurer Steve Grossman, a former pupil.

“Mary’s philosophy was, ‘I want you and your classmates, as well as you possibly can, to become the people you’re studying about,’ ” said Grossman, who added that Ms. Eliot even had children learn how to throw a javelin and discus for a school-held “Olympics.”

“She had that unique ability to make you close your eyes and pretend you were on the battlefield of the Trojan War,” said Grossman, who was her student in 1955.

Years later, when Grossman campaigned for public office, Ms. Eliot would pick up the phone to help secure votes. “She would say, ‘I’ve known Steve Grossman almost all his life. I’m supporting him, and I hope you will too,’ ” he recalled.

Ms. Eliot stayed involved in politics through the last days of her life, making time to vote on Nov. 4. She went to the hospital shortly after, said one of her cousins, Geoff Kerr of Acton.

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According to Kerr, Ms. Eliot was “concerned about the lack of humanity that not only our nation, but our world, shows.”

“She believed deeply in progressive principles, things that mattered,” said Grossman. “She remained a contemporary woman because she was so thoughtful about ideas.”

Ms. Eliot’s progressive principles fit right into the education the Shady Hill School was trying to provide, said Catherine David, the school’s former director of communications.

In 1947, Ms. Eliot went to Shady Hill School for a yearlong training program. The school hired her the following year as a teacher, a position she held until becoming assistant director from 1960 to 1962 and associate director from 1963 until she retired in 1989.

“She was part of Shady Hill during some really formative times,” David said. “She was there during the civil rights movement. She was there when President Kennedy was shot.”

Shaw said that Ms. Eliot worked to make Shady Hill more racially and socioeconomically diverse and “became a strong vocal and philosophical proponent in that direction.” He added that Ms. Eliot worked to help African-American families find financial aid so their children could attend.

“She really helped the school think through how to get that money,” Shaw said. “She helped the faculty think through curriculum methodology to make it more inclusive.”

The curriculum used at the Shady Hill School is constructed so that each grade focuses on a central subject for a year. During her time as an administrator, Ms. Eliot strived to perfect that model.

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“She was the person who constantly made sure that the components of the central subject remained,” Shaw said. “She wanted to be sure that kids experienced learning that was deep and multifaceted.”

After her years as a teacher, Ms. Eliot shared her wisdom with colleagues through her administrative role. When Shaw was struggling with leading some of the faculty, she became “a real source of inspiration and ideas,” he said She helped him improve the way he held meetings and bring in an outside facilitator.

In her office, rather than use filing cabinets, Ms. Eliot kept tall stacks of papers on her desk, Shaw recalled. Despite the clutter, she knew where everything was and could immediately find the paper she sought.

“She would go to the right part of the right pile and pluck it out,” Shaw said. “She was always on top of things, but you wouldn’t know that by walking by her office.”

Mary Caroline Eliot was born in Washington, D.C., attended Sidwell Friends School, and graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1945. She worked in a chemistry lab for a short time before realizing she wanted a job where she could interact more with people, said her cousin Bill Morton of Los Angeles.

Away from work, she cared for a magnificent garden behind her pre-Revolutionary War Marshfield home. “That was truly her biggest love of life,” said Shaw, who recalled that the back of her Volvo was usually filled with pots and plants.

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The Eliot family was known for being academics, said Kerr, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot was a relative.

Gretchen Sommerfeld of Arlington, a former student and longtime family friend of Ms. Eliot, said she heard about “Cousin Tom” from Ms. Eliot all her life. “She and her mother had visited Tom in London on the occasion of the queen’s coronation,” recalled Sommerfeld, who added that Ms. Eliot remembered watching the coronation from a nearby building.

Ms. Eliot had no immediate family, and besides Kerr and Morton leaves other cousins.

A service was held and Shady Hill School is planning a memorial gathering.

In addition to working at Shady Hill, Ms. Eliot served on the boards of the National Association of Independent Schools and what is now the Association of Independent Schools in New England. After retiring in 1989, she helped establish the James Library in Norwell.

Though Ms. Eliot spent much of her career teaching the fourth grade, she also spent some time teaching seventh-graders.

When friends would suggest that seventh grade was a tough age-group to teach, Ms. Eliot would say, “ ‘You just have to know what you’re doing,’ ” Sommerfeld said.

Recalling the way Ms. Eliot would peer over her glasses, Sommerfeld added: “I’m sure she never had a difficult moment in her life with seventh-graders.”


Melissa Hanson can be reached at melissa.hanson@globe.com.