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Roz Rowley, 70, taught generations of Perkins School students to read

Roz Rowley was named teacher of the year in 2010 by the Braille Institute.
Perkins School for the Blind
Roz Rowley was named teacher of the year in 2010 by the Braille Institute.

As a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind and a legendary teacher there for more than 40 years, Roz Rowley had a well-earned reputation for opening the world to her students. “I love to read,” she once told a school publication. “So when I see that someone can’t read, it makes me want to do something about it.”

One day in the fall of 2001, she was assigned to teach Stephen Yerardi, who had not been able to learn Braille proficiently. “I could tell that he had given up on learning to read,” Mrs. Rowley said in an interview for a Paths to Literacy case study. “Not only did Stephen have great difficulty learning the letters and contractions, he also had poor phonemic awareness — he could not master the sounds that form words, the very foundation of literacy. I needed to find a different way to teach this information to him, and that’s what I intended to do.”

After consulting with teachers who had instructed students with learning disabilities, she settled on the Wilson Reading System, which is designed to help those with dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities, and she subsequently helped adapt it for students who have visual impairments. For her accomplishments, the Braille Institute in 2010 named her teacher of the year for excellence in Braille instruction.

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“Before I met Roz, I really didn’t know how to read anything,” Yerardi said in a video tribute prepared for Mrs. Rowley after the award was announced. With her help, he added, “I eventually gave my graduation speech in 2004 — read it off a Braille document. So she gave me, definitely, the gift of reading, which I treasure to this day.”

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Mrs. Rowley, who had hoped to teach until the end of this school year ended, died of cancer April 14 in the Elizabeth Evarts de Rham Hospice Home in Cambridge. She was 70 and lived in Watertown.

“She taught hundreds of children while she was at Perkins, with unending enthusiasm and vitality,” Pat McCall, education director at Perkins for the early learning center, Lower School, and secondary programs, said in a eulogy at Mrs. Rowley’s memorial service last month. Students at Perkins, he added, “respected her, listened to her, and learned so, so much from her. She was one of them, after all, which made her that much more passionate in her job.”

When Mrs. Rowley returned to teach at Perkins, a few years after graduating in 1964, “it felt like I was back at home and had come full circle,” she told the school publication. Those who had taught her were now colleagues as she settled into her career.

Mrs. Rowley “really promoted the teaching of Braille,” Cynthia Essex, director of the Secondary Program at Perkins, said in the tribute video. “And she’s worked with many students who’ve had learning problems, and this was of great concern to her because she knew the value of Braille for those students, and had some difficulty teaching them, and for that reason, she has done a lot of significant work trying to find programs and materials that would work well for those students.”

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When it came time to adjust the Wilson Reading System so that it could be used by students with visual impairments, Mrs. Rowley “was able to scrutinize the program and adapt it in a way that makes sense,” said Justine Rines, evaluations coordinator at the Perkins School.

Though Mrs. Rowley was honored for that work, she also created a course in recent years that she dubbed “English for real life.” Lessons focused on how to read want ads and bus and train schedules, and how to write business letters. “These are practical things you need to learn to become employed and independent,” McCall said in an interview.

At Perkins and at home, Mrs. Rowley taught more than reading, however. “Anywhere or anything I ever did with you, I knew at some point you would have a gigantic smile on your face,” her son, Eric Lannquist of Quincy, said in his eulogy. “I think that’s why I smile a lot, because I always saw you smiling and I think it may have rubbed off on me.”

That optimism and disposition, friends and colleagues said, was as much a part of Mrs. Rowley’s lesson plan as the day’s reading assignments. “If you go through life without laughing when you have a disability, you have much harder time,” said Judi Cannon, a friend who is president of the Perkins Alumni Association. “Roz was vibrant.”

Rosalind Ellen Silverman grew up in Malden, the only child of Bernard and Alice Silverman. Her father worked in the upholstery business, and her mother was a secretary for the city’s Planning Board.

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Born with low vision, Mrs. Rowley grew frustrated during her years in Malden’s schools. She was relegated to the sidelines during gym class games and often had to wait for tutors to assist with material that wasn’t in Braille. During her junior year in high school, she transferred to the Perkins School, where she was on the student council, participated in the drama and folk clubs, was cocaptain of the cheering squad, competed on the track team, and was circulating editor of the Echoes literary magazine.

“Coming to Perkins was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she told the school publication. “It changed my life.”

After graduating, she received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and a master’s from Boston College, where she specialized in learning to teach students who are blind.

Mrs. Rowley, whose first marriage ended in divorce, married Bob Rowley in 1996. “We both liked to travel, we both liked the same kinds of music, and we just hit it off,” said her husband, who works at the Perkins library. “We would have lasted forever. We were just meant to be. Roz was the love of my life.”

When she wasn’t teaching, Mrs. Rowley loved to shop, and “for her, shopping was time to spend with friends,” her son said in his eulogy. He added that “she wanted everyone she came in touch with to be successful and happy. She also wanted them to take her shopping, but the success and happiness was more important.”

A service was held for Mrs. Rowley, who in addition to her husband, Bob, and son, Eric, leaves a stepson, Kevin Rowley of Springfield.

Mrs. Rowley was diagnosed in 2000 with cancer that returned and metastasized. When she was being treated in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in November, her husband walked into her room one day to find her sitting next to the window, planning another lesson for students.

“She said, ‘I’m just thinking of a book that one of my kids could read,’ ” Bob recalled. “As sick as she was, she was always thinking of something she could teach her students.”

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