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Somewhat past the age when most still relate well with teenagers, let alone set an inspiring example, Jo Crawford was 61 when she approached a history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School with her idea of how to enrich the lives of students.

Together with Bill Schechter she created the MLK Action Project, through which students step away from suburban comforts to work in urban soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food banks, always by choice.

“My personal view is that requiring community service is not good,” Mrs. Crawford recalled in a memoir. “Volunteering is less effective when it is imposed or used as punishment. Our program is aimed at doing what needs to be done, through action.”

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The program became “the political and ethical center of gravity at the school,” said Thomas Dichter, a 2004 graduate. “The students were encouraged to think of ourselves as agents of change and really to ask ‘what can I do,’ rather than to just think of ourselves as good people. Jo created a program and led it in a way to require students to approach service as a way of life, and with humility. She always made it clear that community service was as much a way of educating ourselves as doing good.”

 Mrs. Crawford attended her son Jud’s wedding in 2002.
Mrs. Crawford attended her son Jud’s wedding in 2002.

Mrs. Crawford coordinated the program until the end of the school year in 2014, and last fall slipped swiftly into Alzheimer’s disease, dying July 1 in hospice care at The Falls at Cordingly Dam in Newton. She was 89 and had lived in Lincoln for decades.

“Jo was the one who made it work,” Schechter said of their program. “A lot of people have visions of things, and then there are the kinds of people who make it happen, and she was one of those kinds of people.”

With “incredible dedication,” he said, Mrs. Crawford organized trips into Boston, where students worked at Rosie’s Place, the Pine Street Inn, and the Greater Boston Food Bank, and projects farther afield with Habitat for Humanity.

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Students interacted with people from backgrounds vastly different from those they knew in well-appointed suburbs. Mrs. Crawford also helped launch the fund-raising Jimmy Mack March to Defeat AIDS.

Extracurricular activities can feel like resume-building strategies for college applications, Schechter said, “but Jo helped push kids beyond that to something more extensive: having real experiences that had a transformative effect. She was someone who expected commitment, and you gave your commitment because of her example. She really had this very strong sense that everyone needed to kick in a little bit. That’s how the world gets better.”

Mrs. Crawford was born Joanna Winship on Jan. 2, 1926. Her mother, the former Ruth Spindler, grew up in Iowa and moved to Boston to study violin. Her father, Laurence Winship, became editor of the Globe, and was succeeded in that post by Mrs. Crawford’s brother Thomas, who died in 2002.

She grew up on King Philip Road in Sudbury and said in her memoir that she didn’t “recall a lot of discussion of politics or news at the table, despite my father’s profession as a newsman. He was more likely to bring home a joke he’d heard at lunch with a colleague at Thompson’s Spa or Newspaper Row in Boston.”

Several years younger than her two brothers, she was “the spoiled baby of the family, the one everyone else took care of,” she said in her 2013 memoir “Little Jo to Grandma Jo.”

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During childhood she studied piano, then cello. She also learned to ski and as a teenager “conquered the Tuckerman Ravine headwall on Mount Washington.”

Starting out at Concord Academy, she switched partway through to the Putney School in Vermont and finished early, heading to Vassar College at 17. As with high school, she graduated in three years, studying music theory and history, and writing a thesis on Beethoven. Returning home to Sudbury, she wrote, “it didn’t take long to discover that my Vassar degree would not get me a job, unless I also went to secretarial school.” After a few months of study, she took a secretarial job at MIT.

She had moved into an apartment with friends in Cambridge when she met Dr. John D. Crawford, a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital who later would become chief of the endocrine unit’s children’s service at the hospital. They married in 1949, in the backyard of her family’s Sudbury home. “I fell in love with Jack for many reasons: his integrity; his honest and straightforward manner; his wonderful sense of what was right and what he believed in,” she wrote about her husband, who died in 2005.

The Crawfords lived in Lincoln, where they raised their three children, and Mrs. Crawford became involved with First Parish Church, helping run the inter-generational Pilgrim Fellowship that helped bridge the divide between youths and adults.

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“She was really all about people. Her life in particular revolved around young people,” said her son Jud, who added that “she was an adult young people felt comfortable talking to. They felt understood by her.” With a disarming smile “she was very quick to find humor in things, to appreciate humor that other people offered up,” he said. “I think all of us in the family have a streak of irreverence, and she was no exception.”

Her ability to connect with those who were younger carried beyond her own children to her nieces and nephews, for whom she was a confidante, genuinely interested in their lives. “She had a quality of making you feel comfortable. She was very direct and cut-to-the chase,” said her niece Josie Winship of Minneapolis. “She created a haven for me and for a lot of people. When I visited her at the high school as an adult, it was so clear how special she was to those kids.”

That accommodating presence coupled with her liberal leanings when Mrs. Crawford cofounded the project at Lincoln-Sudbury High to emulate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s social justice teachings. “She was very much a humanitarian,” said her son Thomas of Ellensburg, Wash. “She had very little tolerance for unfair treatment of people.”

In addition to her two sons and niece, Mrs. Crawford leaves a daughter, Becky Tracy of Holmes Beach, Fla.; and four grandchildren.

A service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in First Parish Church in Lincoln.

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Before Mrs. Crawford’s health quickly failed, “the last three years of our time together was the very best,” her daughter said. “I don’t know why it happened the way it did, but all of a sudden there was just a wonderful, close relationship between the two of us as two women, and as a mother and daughter.”

Walking on the beach near her Florida home each evening, she spoke with her mother by cellphone “about anything and everything. Some of it was not deep and meaningful, and other parts of it were extremely personal and opening up. It was an amazing experience. She was my rock.”

“I still carry my phone on the beach at night,” Becky added, “and wonder if maybe she’ll call.”


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