Amalie Kass, teacher, medical historian, and patron of the Greenway Carousel, dies at 91
On the last day of August six years ago, Amalie Kass pressed the start button to officially launch into motion the Greenway Carousel — a gift to Boston’s children for which she was the lead donor and, in no small measure, an integral creative force.
When the Boston Foundation had arranged a tour of the Greenway three years earlier to discuss projects she might help fund, “I think I already had a carousel in mind,” she told the Globe in 2013, “because I just thought that was so cool.”
A respected historian, Mrs. Kass reached into her own childhood when deciding where to put her energy. She had loved riding wooden carousel horses, and in Boston, she insisted that designers seek input from schoolchildren while planning that signature part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
“She would say, ‘Have you talked to the children in the schools? They’re your clients. Go talk to the kids,’ ” recalled Linda Jonash, who was then the Greenway Conservancy’s planning and design director.
Mrs. Kass, a medical historian who was the first woman to chair the Massachusetts Historical Society’s board, died May 19. She was 91 and lived in Belmont.
“She was a connector of people — to one another, and to a worthy cause,” said Diana Chapman Walsh, who was president of Wellesley College when Mrs. Kass served as a college trustee, and an informal advisor to Walsh.
A Wellesley alumnae, Mrs. Kass was a trustee from 1992 until 2007. “Through her example and gentle mentoring, she inspired me — and inspired so many others — to find depths within myself that I didn’t know I had,” Walsh said.
That was the case wherever Mrs. Kass turned her attention. At the Massachusetts Historical Society, she was the first woman to serve as a trustee, said Dennis Fiori, president emeritus of the organization.
“Amalie was one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met,” he said.
She led the board “with kindness, with gentleness, with understanding,” Fiori said, adding that Mrs. Kass also accomplished the rare feat of offering “critiques that were very honest, but not critical.”
Mrs. Kass had plenty of experience guiding groups large and small. She had taught high school in Newton, lectured on the history of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and served as an associate editor for the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.
She also wrote medical history essays and “Midwifery and Medicine in Boston: Walter Channing, M.D., 1786-1876,” a biography of Boston’s then-leading obstetrician. With her late husband, Dr. Edward Kass, she cowrote “Perfecting the World: The Life and Times of Dr. Thomas Hodgkin 1798-1866,” about the physician who identified the lymph-nodes disease that carries his name.
Widowed twice, Mrs. Kass raised her five children from her first marriage, to Malcolm Hecht Jr., and added three stepchildren when she married Edward Kass, who also had been widowed.
“One of the most remarkable things about her was that in addition to all the things she accomplished professionally, she dedicated enormous time and love and energy to the family,” said her son Jonathan Hecht of Watertown. “She brought so much strength and so much stability to our lives. Certainly the core of her life was her family.”
The three stepchildren “have always chosen to call Amalie our second mother because it helps to communicate this feeling of love and the role she took on in our lives,” said her stepdaughter, Nancy Kass of Baltimore.
And Mrs. Kass went beyond her children to provide guidance to nieces and nephews, 19 grandchildren, and the friends of her ever-expanding extended family.
“She clearly became a second mother, or a mother-like figure, to many, many other people,” Nancy said.
Born in Baltimore in 1928, Amalie Moses was the oldest of three siblings whose parents were Leslie Moses, who ran a hat factory, and Helene Lobe, who volunteered extensively in Baltimore’s civic organizations.
Mrs. Kass’s younger sister, Claire Moses Lovett, now lives in New Orleans. Her brother, Alfred Moses, lives in Washington, D.C., and had been the US ambassador to Romania during the Clinton administration and a presidential emissary to Cyprus.
After graduating from Forest Park High School in Baltimore, Mrs. Kass attended Wellesley, where she was a Durant scholar and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1949. In 1963, she received a master’s in education from Boston University, and went on to teach in Newton’s high schools until 1979.
“She was always very precocious,” her son Jonathan said. “She had a very bright mother who encouraged her to use her talents and pursue her interests.”
In 1949, she married Malcolm Hecht Jr. Mr. Hecht, the founder and board chairman of Unitrode Corp., a manufacturer of semiconductor devices, died in 1973 at age 48.
Two years later, she married Dr. Edward Kass. An epidemiologist and an infectious disease researcher, he died in 1990 at age 72.
“She lost two husbands, and her strength in bringing us as a family through those losses is really a testament to the sort of person she was,” Jonathan said.
When Mrs. Kass stopped teaching high school history, she turned to writing about medical topics, often ones involving women’s health and social justice. Over the decades, she remained active in numerous organizations, serving on boards in Lincoln, as a board member and president of the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development, and on the board of the American Physicians Fellowship for Medicine in Israel.
“My mom’s style was to go and volunteer with an organization,” Jonathan said. “She dove in and did whatever work needed to be done.”
Mrs. Kass also set a personal and civic example for “moral decorum — a true sense of right and wrong, and the right way to behave with other people,” Nancy said.
A philanthropist who gave to organizations she had carefully selected, such as Planned Parenthood, Mrs. Kass described her role helping create the Greenway Carousel as “about the most fun I’ve had doing anything.”
“Philanthropy is usually pretty hands-off,” she told the Globe just before the carousel’s opening day. “People are happy to have your help, but it’s often just writing a check. This was more. To be part of the planning was priceless.”
The conservancy “wanted to call it ‘Amalie’s Carousel’ in honor of her,” Jonash said. “She would have nothing of it. There was nothing about her that wanted to be front and center publicly.”
A service at Wellesley College will be announced for Mrs. Kass, who in addition to her son Jonathan, her stepdaughter, Nancy, her brother and sister, and her grandchildren leaves a daughter, Anne Hecht of Newton; three other sons, Robert Hecht of Boston, and Thomas Hecht and Peter Hecht, both of Newton; and two stepsons, Robert Kass of Pittsburgh and James Kass of Cambridge; and a great-grandchild.
Along with her extensive professional and volunteer work, Mrs. Kass was a hiker, skier, and gardener into her 80s.
“She was full of energy,” Walsh said. “She took such joy and pleasure in life, so talking to her was like an adrenaline shot. It was as if she always knew the next great idea or great adventure was right around the corner, and she couldn’t wait for it to happen.”