Marie T. Mulkern, 92, special education teacher and advocate
As associate director of the Kennedy Day School in Brighton from 1972 to 1988, Marie T. Mulkern enthusiastically responded to the accomplishments of students with physical and cognitive disabilities by exclaiming: “Now, isn’t that grand?”
Ms. Mulkern, who was known as Teddy, was one of many advocates who helped create the state’s special education law, Chapter 766. She also formerly chaired the state Department of Education’s Regional Advisory Council for Special Education. As an administrator or teacher, she led by example.
“Teddy taught each of us — educators, teachers, and clinicians — that we can best see the big picture by maintaining a steady focus on each unique child,” said Bonnie Paulino, program director at Kennedy Day School.
Paulino praised Ms. Mulkern’s efforts to seek funds for essential items beyond the private school’s budget, which included powered wheelchairs for children with significant motor challenges, computer technology for students who could not hold a pencil, and voice synthesizers for those could not speak.
“She was their voice and greatest advocate,” Paulino said.
Ms. Mulkern, a past president of the Massachusetts Association for Approved Private Schools, died Feb. 23 at Bradenton Health Care in Florida. She was 92 and had suffered a stroke seven years ago.
“Teddy spent her life dedicated to serving others,” said Pat Walsh, a former Boston Public Schools special education administrator who was on the advisory committee with Ms. Mulkern that worked on finalizing regulations for Chapter 766. “She was passionate about her work – a true public servant and a brilliant educator.”
Enacted in 1972 and implemented in 1974, Chapter 766 requires that each public school student in the Commonwealth age 3 to 21 should have a “free and appropriate education” regardless of disability. The law also requires that instruction be made available in a hospital or special day school, if needed.
A pioneer in obtaining funding for private placement of learning disabled students, Ms. Mulkern was the state’s senior supervisor for speech, hearing, and perceptually handicapped students from 1969 to 71.
Ms. Mulkern, whose nickname Teddy was derived from her middle name, Theresa, also formerly was the Kennedy Day School’s educational curriculum coordinator. The school now is part of the Franciscan Children’s, a hospital in Brighton.
“Teddy was a great speech pathologist, always wanting to do more for the children with a goal of accessibility and making the transition easier for them to live in the mainstream of society,” recalled Sister Pauline Williams, who was director at the Kennedy Day School from 1965 to 1992 and who hired Ms. Mulkern.
Williams said that Ms. Mulkern’s background working with the state made her an invaluable resource and that she was “part of the foundation and development” of the school.
Ms. Mulkern was “a tremendous pragmatist and a passionate advocate,” said Robert Crabtree, an attorney and former research director for Michael Daly, a state representative who was a Chapter 766 cosponsor and a driving force behind the law.
Her accomplishments at the Kennedy Day School “leave a beautiful legacy,” Crabtree added.
Part of that legacy was Ms. Mulkern’s planning and organization of a particular mid-1980s trip for students and staff. In the school’s 40th anniversary memory book, she referred to it as “the world’s longest one-day field trip to Disney World.”
Peggy Smith, the school’s health care coordinator, said that “Teddy and one of the school’s donors wanted them to have a special day. Along with wheelchairs, hearing aids, hand splints, communication boards, feeding tubes, trach mist, and anti-convulsant medications — to name a few bare essentials — we traveled together by land and air to the destination of every child’s dreams. The trip was pure, unforgettable magic.”
Born in Boston, Ms. Mulkern was the daughter of Louis Mulkern and the former Josephine Halloran. After graduating from Jamaica Plain High School, Ms. Mulkern received a bachelor’s degree in 1954 from Boston University and a master’s in 1955 from the University of Florida, both in speech pathology.
“Teddy always had a natural empathy for those who couldn’t speak for themselves,” said her brother, Robert V. Mulkern of Holden, a retired Superior Court judge who is Ms. Mulkern’s only immediate survivor. “The more educated she became, the more dedicated she was to serving special needs children with compassion.”
Ms. Mulkern taught at Boston University, Framingham State College, Boston State College, and Lesley College, and formerly was senior speech pathologist for the Quincy Public Schools.
“She was a wonderful teacher who made every class exciting and had a dry sense of humor,” recalled Yvonne Dedrick, who took Ms. Mulkern’s speech and language night course at Framingham State more than 40 years ago.
“Although there were 40 of us, she always remembered our first names,” added Dedrick, a retired teacher and special needs program adviser for the Boston Public Schools.
Ms. Mulkern moved to Bradenton in 1989 with Joyce O’Connor, her partner for more than 30 years. O’Connor, an educator and special needs advocate, died in 2001.
They had lived together in Hull for many years, and “every summer they invited family, colleagues, friends, and extended family for often elongated visits,” said Ms. Mulkern’s niece Joanna Mulkern of Rockport.
“It was a kind of mini-Kennedy compound of the South Shore,” Joanna added. “There was always lively conversation and spirited political and topical discussions around the dinner table.”
While in Florida, Ms. Mulkern worked as a speech pathologist in the Manatee County Head Start/Early Head Start program.
“Teddy was a fixture among the speech language therapists in Manatee County,” recalled Mary Miller, a colleague. “She worked tirelessly for the children here and was a great soul.”
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. May 7 in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Jefferson.
In 1988, the Massachusetts Senate honored Ms. Mulkern with a citation for distinguished service to special needs students in the Commonwealth.
“Teddy’s mother, Josephine, emigrated from Ireland in 1901 with her four siblings. There was a determination in her family to contribute, to succeed and relish the opportunities offered by America,” Joanna said. “Teddy, I believe, knowing how challenges can ultimately make one stronger, devoted herself to those with special needs.”