Linda Walczak, 61; teacher ‘went far beyond school day hours’
Linda Walczak taught reading and literacy in schools with such extreme budget constraints that she once worked with students in a hallway instead of a classroom.
While she was teaching at the John Winthrop Elementary School in Dorchester, a boy whose family was homeless moved to a shelter in Roxbury, placing him in another school district.
“This particular kid was academically very needy, and Linda wanted to be sure he stayed with her,” said Emily Shamieh of Phoenix, the school’s former principal. For six months, Ms. Walczak drove to Roxbury each morning to pick up the boy, and then she delivered him home every afternoon.
Because she was concerned that some advanced readers might not get enough attention, she brought a group of them to the Boston Athenaeum for a book group each Monday night.
“She really valued her role of being a teacher in inner-city Boston,” Shamieh said. “For her, the job went far beyond school day hours.”
Ms. Walczak died in her Dorchester home Dec. 27 of pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed in 2014. She was 61.
Ms. Walczak, who worked in the Boston Public Schools for 30 years before retiring in 2012, was an elementary school teacher, and also taught strategies to classroom teachers and worked with administrators to develop curriculum.
“She had such a breadth of knowledge,” said Jennifer DiSarcina, who was coached by Ms. Walczak while DiSarcina taught at Orchard Gardens pilot school in Roxbury. “I learned more from Linda about teaching than I learned in grad school.”
When a student was struggling to read, Ms. Walczak would work with the child and offer specific suggestions. “She just cracked the door wide open for me and made me such a better teacher,” DiSarcina said.
Many of Ms. Walczak’s students lived in neighborhoods that were not safe for trick-or-treating, so she dressed as a gypsy each Halloween and told their fortunes in the school library, while her husband, Bill, carved pumpkins with them in the nearby cafeteria, Shamieh said.
“Linda always engaged Bill and her whole family in her teaching,” Shamieh said.
When Simmons College donated 50 old computers to the school, Ms. Walczak’s son, Matthew of Dorchester, came in at her urging and got the machines functioning smoothly. Then the computers were sold for a small sum to families without computers.
“Working with Linda meant you were always waiting to see what she was going to come up with next,” Shamieh said. “She had tons of ideas, and she also had the skills and the energy to make those ideas happen.”
Ms. Walczak often arrived at school on Mondays with bags full of children’s books that she had picked up at sales at either Goodwill or at libraries in the suburbs. “It was her passion, making sure that kids had books available to them,” Shamieh said.
She recalled that Ms. Walczak once decided that the Winthrop School “wasn’t beautiful enough.” A few days later, “she and a group of teachers were outside, plastic bags covering their clothes, painting the school.”
Ms. Walczak was instrumental in launching a Saturday program for families called Dream Days, with translators for parents who didn’t speak English, and experts on topics such as financial planning.
The goal, Shamieh said, was to tell parents: “It’s never too early to think about your children’s future, and it’s never too late to think of your own.”
“That kind of thing was right up Linda’s alley,” Shamieh said. “She had a very strong social justice thread running through her.”
Ms. Walczak saw her family’s 2007 purchase of a house in Falmouth as another opportunity for her students. Each summer she brought a group there for vacation. The children enjoyed the pool and the beach, as well as nighttime sing-a-longs led by their teacher, Shamieh said, but Ms. Walczak also brought them to the public library to check out books, and insisted on daily reading time.
Linda Marie Johnson was born in Dorchester, the oldest of William and Josephine Johnson’s four children. She was raised mainly by her mother, and graduated from Milton High School.
In 1977, she graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston with a bachelor’s degree in English. She received a master’s in education from Fitchburg State College in 1992, the same year she started teaching. Over the years, she received certifications in reading coaching, special education, and English as a second language.
She was 18 when she and some friends were driving a U-Haul to pick up loaned furniture for an apartment they were renting in Codman Square in Dorchester. The group stopped to pick up three Boston University freshmen who were hitchhiking on Route 3 after a weekend at the Cape. One was Bill Walczak.
“We said, ‘We’ll help you move,’ ” he recalled. “Two weeks later they invited us to a house-warming party.”
He and Linda, who married in Dorchester soon after, already were social activists. Their first dates, he said, were spent in the parking lot of a local supermarket handing out fliers to support a boycott of iceberg lettuce by the United Farm Workers union.
“We were both interested in making the world a better place,” said Bill, a community organizer who ran for mayor of Boston in 2013. “She was always devoted to the notion that all poor kids should have the opportunity to live successful lives, and that’s why she went into teaching.”
After marrying, they moved to Denver for six months to work on the lettuce boycott. Then they settled in Dorchester and bought a house at the top of Savin Hill.
In a eulogy, Bill Walczak called his wife “one of the healthiest people I’ve ever known,” and said she “loved to dance, swim, bike, and run.”
She was a collector of children’s books “with illustrations and stories that would make her weep,” her daughter, Elizabeth of Jamaica Plain, said in a eulogy. She described her mother as a “fun-loving goofball” who loved animals, and recalled her “impeccable sense of style” and her joy at finding treasures at thrift shops on the Cape.
“She loved fashion, but not at any cost,” her daughter said. “She was the most skilled bargain-hunter I’ve ever known.”
A service has been held for Ms. Walczak, who in addition to her husband, daughter, and son, leaves her mother Josephine Johnson of Dorchester; two sisters, Joanne Johnson of Dorchester and Maryjean Fielding of Brockton; and a brother, William Johnson of Boston.
“My mom was way too modest and always shied away from the spotlight,” her son said in a eulogy. “She got a master’s degree without much fanfare, quietly wrote letters to the editor . . . didn’t dance or sing most of the year and then would announce an all-singing, all-dancing, weeklong party at their place on the Cape.”
He described her life as a series of “endless tiny victories built up over years . . . to make this gigantic difference that’s nearly impossible to quantify.”