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Grace Corrigan, mother of Christa McAuliffe and education advocate, dies at 94

Grace Corrigan, shown here in a Globe file photo, spent years educating students about space.
Grace Corrigan, shown here in a Globe file photo, spent years educating students about space. Globe Staff/File

Not quite four months after she watched in horror at Cape Canaveral in Florida as the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing her oldest daughter and six other crew members, Grace Corrigan stood before an audience and spoke about everyday courage.

“The little things are the stuff of success,” Mrs. Corrigan told the 1986 graduating class at Framingham State College, an alma mater she shared with her daughter Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher who was the first private citizen selected to serve on a space mission. “She was a hero in the most meaningful way, the ordinary way,” Mrs. Corrigan added, and that was something they shared, too.

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From a childhood during which her parents died when she was young, and on through retirement years when her daughter’s death thrust her into an international spotlight, Mrs. Corrigan met life’s reversals with candor, clarity, and a determination to keep doing good.

“It was a loss for me, just one of those overwhelming things,” she told the Globe in 1993, speaking quietly about her daughter’s death. “What can you do? You can’t go back and do anything about it. Except what I’ve been doing all along, which is to ask myself, ‘OK, Christa, what’s the best thing I can do here?’ ”

Mrs. Corrigan, who had returned to college to get a teaching degree after her five children were grown, was 94 when she died Thursday. She had lived in Framingham for much of her life.

In the years following the Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, Mrs. Corrigan devoted considerable time to advocating for well-funded school systems and extensive community involvement with children’s education.

“She had an impact on so many people, and she did it in a quiet, determined way,” said Mary E. Liscombe, director emerita of what is now the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University.

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“Grace was basically carrying on what Christa would have done herself, had she survived that flight,” Liscombe said. “She would always talk about Christa’s devotion to teaching and to the children.

Ed and Grace Corrigan visited the grave of their daughter, Christa McAuliffe, in Concord, N.H., on Jan. 28, 1987, exactly one year after her death.
Ed and Grace Corrigan visited the grave of their daughter, Christa McAuliffe, in Concord, N.H., on Jan. 28, 1987, exactly one year after her death.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file

As the first schoolteacher chosen to be part of a shuttle mission crew, Christa McAuliffe was a historic figure in the education community and was idolized by children everywhere. The tragedy of McAuliffe’s death, which enshrined her iconic status, left Mrs. Corrigan and her husband, Edward, to grieve a child’s death while the world watched.

Mr. Corrigan died of lymphoma at 67 in 1990. Before his death, he and his wife began collaborating on a book that included excerpts from McAuliffe’s letters and diaries. “A Journal for Christa” was published in 1993.

“Ed had strong opinions about NASA,” Mrs. Corrigan told the Globe that year. “He read all the reports and was bitter he’d lost his daughter. We made an agreement not to speak out publicly or to seek publicity by giving interviews, but I know it bothered him terribly.”

Both of the Corrigans traveled widely to speak to organizations and to participate in fund-raisers. “He missed Christa every day of his life,” Mrs. Corrigan said for his Globe obituary. “We incorporated her in everything, because she was part of us. He spent the last four years doing what she had left undone.”

In the 1993 Globe interview, Mrs. Corrigan recalled that after her daughter died, she took measure of the possible ways she could continue Christa’s mission in life.

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“Maybe that involves working with schools or teacher organizations or the Girl Scouts,” Mrs. Corrigan said. “If I weren’t doing something I felt Christa approved of, I’d feel guilty.”

She added that “the important lesson we can all learn from Christa is to do what you want to do and do it as well as you can. I could have done without the losses in my life, I guess. But everyone suffers some loss along the way. You cannot escape it. Who promised us a rose garden?”

Born in Waterbury, Conn., Grace George was the older of two children. Her parents were Stephen George, an engineer, and Marion Harder. When Mrs. Corrigan was 3, her mother died, and she went to live with her maternal grandmother at 10, after her father died.

According to Edward’s obituary, he and Grace began dating while they were students at Crosby High School in Waterbury. They married in 1947. A Boston College graduate, he was an assistant controller of Jordan Marsh in Boston before becoming an accountant manager for GTE Sylvania in Waltham.

Mrs. Corrigan had studied art in New York City and her paintings shared wall space in her Framingham home with photos of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

After raising her children, Mrs. Corrigan went to Framingham State, where she finished a bachelor’s degree in education in four years. A teacher herself, Mrs. Corrigan fielded mail from all over the world — missives from students and teachers McAuliffe had inspired. Some who reached out to Mrs. Corrigan had received a career boost from programs or awards that were created to honor McAuliffe’s legacy.

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Grace Corrigan spoke during a remembrance ceremony at Framingham State University following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Grace Corrigan spoke during a remembrance ceremony at Framingham State University following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/file

“I had a letter yesterday from a woman in Michigan just back from Japan,” Mrs. Corrigan said in 1993. “She was so excited she went on for pages and pages. … Give a teacher a little bit of recognition, a little push, and they keep going and going and going.”

Liscombe, who had met McAuliffe when both were Framingham State students, accompanied Mrs. Corrigan to some speaking engagements and watched her address groups large and small, in Massachusetts and across the country.

“She had the ability to totally command a room,” Liscombe said. “She was diminutive, but when she stood up there and began speaking, she was the biggest person in the room.”

Mrs. Corrigan also regularly visited the McAuliffe Center, where she would speak to some of the thousands of children who visit the facility annually.

“She was just so real with the kids,” Liscombe said. “Her message was always, ‘Do you know why Christa went into space?’ The kids would ask why, and she would say, ‘For you. She wanted you to understand that someone who was a regular person could do something like that. And you can, too, if you dream it and you work hard to achieve your dreams.’ The kids would watch her spellbound.”

Mrs. Corrigan leaves two sons, Christopher of Framingham and Stephen of Walnut Creek, Calif.; two daughters, Lisa Bristol of Sterling and Elizabeth of Hermosa Beach, Calif.; Steven McAuliffe of New Hampshire, the husband of her late daughter; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday in St. George Church in the Saxonville part of Framingham. Burial will be private.

During the 1993 Globe interview, bells began ringing at St. Jeremiah Church, a few blocks from Mrs. Corrigan’s Framingham home.

“After the accident,” she said, before pausing to begin again.

“No, it wasn’t an accident,” she said of the Challenger explosion. “After it happened, every church in town began to ring its bells. Someone called Father O’Connor and asked him why his weren’t ringing too. ‘We don’t have any bells,’ he said. So they started a church drive.”

And that resulted in the bells that chimed a dozen times as she sat with a reporter.

“Listen,” Mrs. Corrigan said. “Those are Christa’s bells. Can you hear them?”


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