With each project Mary Ellen Colten guided during her more than three decades directing the Center for Survey Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston, she kept sight of both the work at hand and how it might affect all research work in the future.
“Every time we did a study, we didn’t just do the study, we also tried to build into the studies ways to make research better, and we did that for all the 30 years I was beside her,” said Anthony Roman, a retired senior statistician for the center. “And she encouraged all the staff members to do that — not just to do good work, but to advance science, and do it all the time.”
As director, Dr. Colten “grew it into one of the best academic survey centers in the country,” he added. “And that’s not easy to do. UMass Boston — we’re not Harvard, but she did it. And she did it because not only was she incredibly knowledgeable about survey research, but she also was just very good at all the nuts and bolts of making the center work.”
Dr. Colten, who combined scholarly studies with political activism, including holding campaign and fund-raising events with a group of friends known as the Obama Mamas, died in her Cambridge home May 2 of metastatic cancer. She was 68 and lived in Cambridge.
“Although she never defined herself by her work, she played a very important role in helping build that into such a powerful center,” said her husband, Barry Bluestone, a senior fellow at The Boston Foundation who also teaches at Northeastern University.
Indeed, since being diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, Dr. Colten trained to become part of the Breast Cancer Advocacy Group at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
“The National Institutes of Health reached out to patients, and particularly cancer patients, to be involved in reviewing research proposals to see if there was any way to improve that research to make sure it would not only be medically helpful, but would deal with the whole patient, and not just the cancer,” Bluestone said.
For many years, Dr. Colten also had been part of the leadership of the nonprofit Institute for Health and Recovery in Cambridge, a statewide program development agency that consults with organizations, and provides training and technical assistance.
“She was incredibly smart and wonderfully funny, but I think above all she was the most loving and supportive friend one could ever dream of,” said Diane Juliar, a law professor at Suffolk University Law School.
Dr. Colten “was a good observer and accurate reporter of the human condition around her,” said Juliar, a friend since they were in high school together in Detroit. “She asked good questions and gave sound advice, and also wanted advice. She wasn’t just the wisdom-giver. She would seek input and express her appreciation for it.”
The younger of two siblings, Mary Ellen Colten was born in Detroit and was known to most by her initials M.E. Her father, Joseph Colten, was an accountant, and her mother, the former Lois Ellen Trigg, was a homemaker.
While growing up in Detroit, she was a counselor at a summer camp in upstate Michigan, where she learned to sail and taught sailing.
“She loved working with kids. A couple of summers ago, we decided to go back and visit, and we relived some of our summertimes in Detroit and Northern Michigan,” said her husband, who also is from Detroit.
They both had attended Mumford High School, which achieved cultural cachet beyond Detroit when Eddie Murphy’s character in the film “Beverly Hills Cop” wore a “Mumford Phys. Ed. Dept.” T-shirt.
Though Dr. Colten remained well known among former Mumford classmates at reunions, “I think it was striking that she continued to make a lot of friends, and close friends, throughout her adult life,” Juliar said. “I think that doesn’t happen for everyone.”
After Mumford, Dr. Colten went to the University of Michigan and graduated in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Two years later, she received a master’s in psychology from Yale University, and then returned to the University of Michigan for a doctorate in psychology.
She later graduated from Simmons College with a master’s in business administration, after she had begun working at the Center for Survey Research and thought it would help to study how to run a large organization. “She’s the most educated person I know,” said her husband, who was the founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern.
Dr. Colten became the director of the Center for Survey Research at UMass Boston in the early 1980s.
Though she and Bluestone had grown up in the same city, gone to the same high school, and spent overlapping student years at the University of Michigan, they didn’t meet until both were in Boston. He had been teaching at Boston College and was launching the public policy doctoral program at UMass Boston when they were introduced.
“She said, ‘Actually, I know who you are, Barry,’ and I said, ‘Did you read about me in the school newspaper?’ She said, ‘No, we both went to Mumford High School,’ ” he recalled.
They had lived perhaps a mile apart in Detroit, but were separated by four years in high school. His father, Irving, had been chief negotiator for the United Automobile Workers, and Barry was an activist in college — she remembered seeing him at rallies. After meeting in Boston, they began dating and married a year later, in 1987.
“I think I fell in love with her the moment I saw her,” he said. “I sometimes joke that I married my high school sweetheart, but I didn’t meet her until I was 42.”
In addition to her husband, Dr. Colten leaves their son, Josh Colten Bluestone of Chicago; her brother, Stewart of Washington, D.C.; and her stepbrother, Joe Chafets of Newton.
A memorial gathering to celebrate her life will be held at 10 a.m. June 10 in the Cambridge Friends Meeting House.
Her husband said that he and Dr. Colten and their son planned what she insisted would be “a joyous and not solemn celebration” of her life, which will include a guitar piece Josh composed. Having lived so long since her diagnosis, Dr. Colten took a meticulous approach to all the details of her life, including her many friendships.
“Throughout these last months, or I guess even years, of her illness, I think every one of us who got in touch with her had the same experience,” Juliar said. “Whether it was a visit or a phone call, before you could get a word out, she would ask in all sincerity, ‘How are you’ — with the emphasis on the ‘you.’ To me, that connectedness to others and that concern was very central to who she was.”
“We’re all lucky when we have friends like that,” Juliar added. “She was a special and remarkable friend.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.