Jill McLean Taylor, social justice professor at Simmons

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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When the obituary of her paternal grandfather appeared in a New Zealand newspaper with the last line, “Jack McLean also had five daughters,’’ the anonymity of the women struck a nerve in Dr. Jill McLean Taylor.

Much of the obituary focused on McLean’s sons and their rugby achievements, never mentioning the daughters’ achievements or even their names.

Dr. Taylor never forgot that and, in 1997, as a professor of women and gender studies and social justice at Simmons College in Boston, began writing a book, entitled “Jack McLean Also Had Five Daughters.’’

She retired from Simmons in May with one of her reasons being to finish her book. In September, Dr. Taylor was diagnosed with leukemia. She died of it at Brigham and Women’s Hospital on Oct. 23.

Dr. Taylor, a champion of women’s rights and social justice, an advocate for education and the rights of children, was 66. She and her husband lived in Wellesley Hills.

Simmons president Helen G. Drinan said Dr. Taylor’s death was a loss to the entire Simmons community and to the causes she championed. “To say that Jill was beloved by those at Simmons would be a tremendous understatement,’’ she said.

“Her sharp intellect and upbeat personality made her a pleasure to be with and learn from. From the students she advised to the faculty she worked with, and numerous alumni who stayed in contact with her, Jill was everything we want Simmons to be.’’

One area where her loss will be felt is the Boston Teachers Union School in Jamaica Plain. She was pivotal in its progress since its founding last year, said Roberta Kelly, a Simmons faculty member.

Dr. Taylor’s death was also mourned in New Zealand, where some of her family lives. In an e-mail, Denis McLean, New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States in the 1990s, recalled that after his stint, she had encouraged him to teach for a time at Simmons. “Her obvious rapport with the young women she taught and the impact on college life of her shining personality were an object lesson,’’ he said. “It is no small thing to have made such a mark on so many.’’

Students present and past vouch for that. Kaitlin Johnson of Greenwich, Conn., a senior, said Dr. Taylor, by example, had put her on a career path in social justice.

“She was an inspiration and always urged us to get involved in the community,’’ Johnson said. “She taught us that we could achieve whatever we wanted and got me interested in politics. . . . When you looked at her as a student, you just knew she was someone you could learn something from.’’

Another former Simmons student, Dana Bialer of Waltham, said, “Her teaching style was transformative. She made a point of challenging students to both live their challenges academically and in pursuits outside the classroom. Her humanity was present in every interaction she had.’’

Dr. Taylor’s warmth and laughter were magnets. “Jill was fun and funny,’’ said Jane Brewer of Dedham, a longtime friend who named her daughter for her. “Jill was generous, warm, and smart. She was as good a friend as anyone could ask for.’’

Several days before Dr. Taylor was diagnosed with leukemia, they walked on Martha’s Vineyard where she summered.

Her three sons cherished her and her sense of humor.

“My mom was passionate, enthusiastic, and optimistic about everything,’’ said her son Alex of Boston. “She was also the busiest, teaching her classes, meeting with students and colleagues after work and on weekends, doing research for her book, and logging at least five to seven phone calls a day to her friends.’’

Another son, William of Philadelphia said his mother was also tough “in good ways.’’

“She simply willed herself not to get even a cold for years on end,’’ he said. “She was tough on manners . . . and when standards had relaxed, she would say, ‘We are going to have a blitz on manners.’ ’’

She was born in Wellington, New Zealand, to Terrence Power “TP’’ McLean, a journalist, and Carol (Coyle), dubbed Sir Terry and Lady McLean after the Queen of England knighted TP for contributions to journalism.

In Wellington, she attended the Diocesan School for Girls until 1960. In 1961, she worked as a physiotherapist aide with polio patients. From 1962 to 1964, she earned a degree from the New Zealand School of Physiotherapy in Dunedin.

After graduation, she was a nanny in France. On the way home, she stopped in New York and attended the New York Rugby Sevens Tournament. Playing on behalf of the Boston Rugby Football Club was Alwyn Harry Taylor, a native of Belfast.

Jill returned to New Zealand 60 days later, and Harry returned to Ireland. Weeks later, he flew to New Zealand. They married in 1969 and arrived in Boston that year, settling in Wellesley in 1975. Harry Taylor, a chemist, was vice-president of research and development at Duracell.

At first, Dr. Taylor worked as a physical therapist and taught childbirth classes at night.

Her son Thomas Adam Taylor of Newton, recalled that during the years she taught childbirth classes, she missed the last trip of the day from the Vineyard to the mainland. “In desperation to get back to her class, mom yelled to the captain and the crew, ‘I need to deliver a baby!’ That was enough to stop the ferry.’’

In 1982, she received a bachelor’s degree in management and human services from the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston. From 1982 through 1984, she studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, earning a master’s in human development and psychology. She earned a doctorate in education, human development, and psychology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1989.

From 1987 to 1993, Dr. Taylor was adjunct instructor at Wesleyan University, Suffolk University, and Wheelock College before joining the faculty at Simmons.

In addition to her husband and three sons, Dr. Taylor leaves two brothers, Jock and David, and a sister, Sally Anne McLean, all of New Zealand.

Services have been held. Burial was in Edgartown.

She never lost her love for sports and remained active until her diagnosis, her son Tom said.

“She maintained these interests, in particular tennis, running, and power walking miles upon miles with her beloved companions-friends and dogs alike. In late August, Jill played perhaps the best tennis of her life in the finals of the annual family and friends tournament on Martha’s Vineyard.’’

Gloria Negri can be reached at