Cecile Pierlot Strugnell, sociologist and editor

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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The prominent careers of her father and husband often kept Cecile Pierlot Strugnell’s intellect in shadow for her first 50 years. It kept growing, though, like the ferns she planted in a dark nook by her cellar door, no less alive and thriving for going largely unnoticed.

Separated and a single mother, she put the finishing touches on raising her children and completed a doctorate. From then on, Dr. Strugnell flourished in a series of jobs, culminating with a decade as an editor of history and French textbooks.

Informed, perhaps, by the years when so much of life was not hers to control, she calmly and deliberately decided she would not allow certain things to happen after being diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy. The rare, degenerative brain disease could have brought on dementia or left her mind trapped in a body that could neither move nor form words.

Recently, she stopped eating and drinking, and she died in her home Aug. 16. Dr. Strugnell was 77 and had lived in Winchester since 1991 and previously in Arlington for 25 years.

“It was part of her declaration of what life was to her,’’ said her daughter Anne-Christine of San Rafael, Calif. “For her, life was about interaction and contribution. Unable to do that, it wasn’t really life, and it certainly wasn’t her life.’’

Dr. Strugnell’s life began in Belgium, where she was the youngest of seven children in a strict Catholic family. Her father was Hubert Pierlot, the country’s prime minister, and she was 8 when the family fled to England as Nazi forces invaded.

Attending a convent school during World War II, she became fluent in English and “always had a faint British accent,’’ her daughter said.

The Pierlots returned to Belgium after the war, and she graduated from Université Catholique de Louvain with a bachelor’s degree in history and sociology. Winning a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago, she traveled to the United States and met the man whose career would define the next phase of her life.

“She kind of moved from the shadow of her family to the shadow of another prominent man,’’ her daughter said.

John Strugnell, whom she married in the late 1950s, was a religious scholar who could read, speak, and write in nine languages. His work took the couple to Jerusalem, and then to Duke University in North Carolina, where he taught for several years. In the mid-1960s, they moved to Arlington, and he became a professor of Christian origins at Harvard Divinity School.

Within a few years, he was diagnosed as manic depressive, and the couple separated. Despite treatment for mental illness and bouts with alcoholism, he became chief editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls project until 1990, when he was dismissed for making anti-Semitic remarks in an interview with an Israeli journalist - an incident friends and family say reflected his depression and substance abuse, rather than his actual views.

His wife, meanwhile, had effectively become a single mother before their separation and eventual divorce. Dr. Strugnell also tended to extended family matters she knew were slipping beyond her former husband’s grasp.

“After her divorce from my father, she continued to write and send pictures to her former mother-in-law and sister-in-law in England, knowing that my father would not take the time to keep that connection alive,’’ her daughter wrote in an e-mail.

At home, her daughter said in an interview, Dr. Strugnell’s approach to gardening, and her choice to cultivate plants such as ferns, was a metaphor of sorts for the way she raised her children.

“Ferns just happen; you don’t do anything to them,’’ her daughter said. “That was kind of like how she was with us. She wanted us to explore what intrigued us.’’

For her mother’s memorial service tomorrow, she plans to read from a piece published in a slightly different form last year in the Christian Science Monitor.

“She wasn’t going to train or prune or trim us to fit her preconceptions of what we should be like,’’ her daughter wrote. “Instead, she studied us, and learned what we needed. She placed the sun-loving plants on the south-facing slope and the ferns in the shady hollow by the cellar door, and then let them grow without further intervention. For us, too, she made sure we had the right conditions and then watched us unfurl into our own shapes, while she provided the cool, rocky foundation walls that gave us the shelter we needed to thrive.’’

In need of income and intellectual stimulation, Dr. Strugnell worked counseling widows through bereavement, taught at Framingham State College, and helped create a cross-disciplinary gerontology program at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

She also finished her doctorate in sociology at Northeastern University, worked with a project that encouraged the hiring of older and semiretired workers, and was an editor at D.C. Heath, a publishing company that Houghton Mifflin of Boston bought while she was an employee.

Dr. Strugnell retired in 2001 and turned more of her attention to volunteer activities at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, which she began attending after leaving the Catholic Church. She also worked with groups to preserve Winter Pond in Winchester.

“She had a very strong sense that you have to live out your beliefs,’’ her daughter said. “And she believed that everybody’s experience has something to teach you, whether or not that person is smarter than you or luckier than you or less lucky. She was always interested in other people.’’

That extended to her decisions at the end of her life, which her daughter said she disclosed to a support group of those diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy.

“Mother felt it was profoundly helpful for people to talk about decisions that they’ve made,’’ her daughter said. “She was all about starting the dialogue, sharing the experience, and thought everyone could gain as a result. What is your path? What are your choices going to be? She would have wanted the truth to be told.’’

In addition to her daughter Anne-Christine, Dr. Strugnell leaves her companion of 24 years, Tom Hogan of Winchester; two sons, David of Billerica and Andrew of Arlington; two other daughters, Claire of Billerica and Monique O’Connell of Medford; a sister, Marie-Thérèse DeLatter-Pierlot of Belgium; a brother, Hubert Pierlot of Morell, Prince Edward Island; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow in First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington. Burial will be private.