Mary Newmann, at 69; educator, social worker, led BB&N

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / August 1, 2011

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Mary Newmann, a longtime educator and social worker who led the private school Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge for almost a decade, faced cancer with the same grace and joie de vivre for which she was known at the schools she led.

“Kindness, courtesy, civility, those old-fashioned and time-tested values’’ came naturally to Ms. Newmann, her former assistant headmaster, Al Rossiter, once observed. “To let people know she was thinking of them, to remember how important it is to be appreciated, included, noticed, or to use her expression, ‘tended to.’ ’’

Ms. Newmann, 69, of Cambridge, died July 24 during her family’s annual summer vacation in Polson, Mont. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer almost two years ago.

“She lived fully to the last minute,’’ said Sue Lehmann, a friend since junior high school in New York. “She accepted her diagnosis and said ‘I’m going to have a high quality of life, and I want to spend it with the people I love.’ ’’

In May, Ms. Newmann cruised around Paris with Lehmann, reveling in the lights of the Arc de Triomphe followed by a nightcap at the Ritz. In June, she traveled to Venice with her cousin and later basked in the salt air along the shores of Rockport, Maine, with one of her daughters.

Days before her death, she sat by the shore of Flathead Lake in view of the mountains and played with her granddaughters Maxine, 5, and Sadie Darrah, 3. They called her MOMA, short for “mother of ma.’’

“She had so many friends, and her life was so busy, but when she was with them, she just entered this magical world,’’ said her daughter Emily. “She was very playful and silly with them. People don’t always know that side of her. I felt like time would just stop when she was with them.’’

Ms. Newmann, who was head of BB&N from 1992 to 2001, is credited with forging partnerships with the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Science and leading efforts to integrate faculty and curriculum across the school’s three campuses.

She was a key leader in rebuilding the upper school campus and had a knack for diffusing conflict.

“She had a wonderful capacity of not getting angry,’’ said her husband, Ted Smith. “She would take the situation that was conflict-ridden in so many ways and come up with humor as the best antidote.’’

Born Mary Misch in New York City, Ms. Newmann was the daughter of Robert and Janet Misch. Her father wrote about food and wine, and her mother was a social worker.

She attended the Dalton School and Riverdale Country School in New York and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1963. She earned graduate degrees in education and social work at the Bank Street College of Education and at the New York University School of Social Work.

She married her college sweetheart, John Newmann, and had two daughters. They divorced after almost 10 years and remained friends. Newmann, who lives in Oakland, Calif., suffered a heart attack last week and was in intensive care, his daughters said.

“They remained an unbelievable team as parents,’’ said their daughter Dr. Sara Newmann, an ob-gyn doctor in San Francisco.

Ms. Newmann started her career in education as founder and director of a correspondence high school in Jakarta, where she and her first husband were working.

In the late 1970s, she became director of the Churchill School and Center for Learning Disabilities in New York City and was head of the Manhattan Town School from 1986 to 1992.

She married Ted in 1978.

In 2001, she retired from BB&B. Two years later, she accepted a post leading the Cambridge Friends School, a Quaker elementary and middle school, where she stayed until 2008.

She also served on many boards, including Cambridge Community Foundation, Shady Hill School, Breakthrough, Primary Source, Early Steps and Prospect Hill Academy.

Ms. Newmann’s daughters marveled at their mother’s ability to balance her busy professional life with baking homemade cakes for their childhood birthday parties. She once organized a scavenger hunt for a party at a local farm. The hunt culminated in the children discovering a tree with sugar and cinnamon doughnuts hanging from its limbs.

“She made people feel so special - that they were the main focus. She inspired me in my work to enjoy learning and listening to people, that it is a gift to get to know people,’’ said Emily, who lives in Cambridge and is also a social worker.

According to her husband, Ms. Newmann felt education in Cambridge could be high on intellectualism and short on kindness. “She wanted to see there was kindness among students and faculty. If she wanted to leave any kind of legacy, it was to bring that aspect of human relations,’’ he said.

In addition to her husband, daughters, and granddaughters, Ms. Newmann leaves her sister, Katherine Koritzinsky of Madison, Wisc.; a niece, and several nephews.

A celebration of her life will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 24 in First Parish Cambridge Unitarian Universalist Church in Cambridge.

“When I think of Mary, the first words that come to mind are grace, warmth, and unfailing good cheer . . . I also think about Mary’s never-wavering focus and care about what is good for children,’’ said Rebecca T. Upham, who followed her as head of BB&N and was a friend. “Mary, indeed, was so rare in all the love she brought into this world.’’

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at

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