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SIMONS, Hildred Dodge (1922-2019) passed away of age-related causes at Brookhaven in Lexington on Monday June 3, 2019, where she received exceptionally loving care. She was 96 years old. She is survived by her loving husband of 69 years, John C. “Jack” Simons Jr., as well as by her three children, John C. “Jack” Simons III and his wife Kathy L. of Hamilton MA; Alan E. Simons and his wife Laurie Y. of Beverly MA; and Normandy S. Helmer and her husband John F. of Eugene OR. She is also survived by her six grandchildren, Emily M. Simons of Pittsburgh PA; Evan E. Simons and his wife Lauren of Beverly MA; Elise J. Simons of Jamaica Plain MA; Elliot L. Simons of Oakland CA; Charlotte M. Helmer of Eugene OR; and John E. Helmer of Eugene OR; and by a great-grandson, Cole J. Simons of Beverly MA.
Hildred was predeceased by her sister, Beverly Dodge; brother, Erskine Dodge; stepsister, Isabel Dodge Cunningham; stepbrother, Wilfred Dodge; and nephew David Turke (known to the community of Bangor ME as “Chuck Foster”). Surviving nieces and nephews are Kitty Carrier, Bonnie Squires, Jim Dodge, and Ronald Scofield, all of Maine; and Bill Simons of Wildwood GA.
We are grateful to Hildred’s caregivers and lifetime friends, and all who supported her work and life. Cards may be sent in care of her son, Jack Simons, 245 Sagamore Street, Hamilton MA 01982 (firstname.lastname@example.org). In lieu of flowers, should you be so inclined, the family ask that you please consider donations to one of the causes dear to Hildred:
Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University
Wheelock Family Theatre
Massachusetts Audubon Society
Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee
Hildred was born Nov. 19, 1922, on a family farm surrounded by relatives in Windsor, Maine. Her father, Herbert Everett Dodge, was a woodsman who reluctantly turned to farming to help his father-in-law. Her mother, Annie Lyon Dodge, was a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse, where Hildred also attended elementary school and enjoyed the opportunity to assist younger children. (The Windsor Historical Society has one of Annie’s schoolhouses preserved at Windsor Fairgrounds.)
Hildred had an older sister, Beverly, and younger brother, Erskine, and two stepsiblings from her father’s first marriage: Isabel, and Wilfred, who was very dear to her. Hildred’s childhood home had many farm animals including plow horses, a cow, sheep, many barn cats (of whom Hildred was not very fond), and her much loved riding horse, Goldie. Herbert supplemented the family’s farm income by logging and cutting ice on the Kennebec River; he died in 1933 when Hildred was ten. After Herbert’s death, Annie moved the family to Augusta and, aided by her sister, Eva, took in washing, worked nights at the hospital, and took in foster children to pay the bills; Hildred recalled that she was never at a loss for playmates.
After graduating from Coney High School, Hildred considered becoming a teacher but was told, “teachers have to be able to play the piano and sing.” Lacking these required skills and interests, she went to nursing school at Central Maine General and later to Boston University, where she obtained her Registered Nurse degree. She worked as a training nurse and head nurse at hospitals in Pittsburgh and Boston, including Peter Bent Brigham, Massachusetts General, and Newton-Wellesley. She wanted to nurse overseas but was unable to get an appointment before the end of the war. Hildred shared many stories about the cutting-edge medical doctors and staff with whom she worked, and about her work with patients, one of whom introduced her to Wellfleet and a life-long love of the Cape. Nursing remained at the core of her identity throughout her life.
While in Boston, she met John Crankshaw Simons Jr., an MIT doctoral student in physics, whose family lived in Philadelphia. She and Jack married in Cambridge on July 31, 1949. The couple moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where their first child, Jack, was born; then to Belmont, MA, where son Alan and daughter Normandy were born; and then to Weston, where they lived for the next 54 years until their move to Brookhaven Lexington in 2012.
Hildred first became active in the Unitarian Church at the First Church in Belmont. She engaged with religious education over many years, working with dear friends Melvin Gulbrandsen, Rev. Eugene Navias, and Rev. Christine Wetzel, and attended the Religious Education conferences at Star Island; she eventually became Treasurer of the New England Inter-District Religious Education Committee. Hildred helped revise the sex education curriculum for the Unitarian Universalist Association; always a proponent of honesty, she included a picture of a couple peacefully sleeping in a large bed at a time when TV shows only featured twin beds for married couples.
In 1966, Hildred agreed to take a suddenly vacated position as director of the recently established John Winthrop Nursery School at First Church in Boston. Hildred was to lead the school for decades, through changes that would put the school on the cutting edge of the emerging field of early childhood development and education, and family support. When an arsonist severely damaged the school and church in 1968, Hildred relocated the program temporarily to the Church of the Covenant and contributed to the re-design of the new school facility that would include four classrooms and adjacent play yards. Hildred added a full-day program to meet the needs of working parents and a toddler program, and forged relationships with state agencies and social and medical services in order to provide access to a diversity of families including those with limited financial resources, and with children with special cognitive, emotional, and physical needs. Hildred established relationships with many elementary schools in order to assist families transitioning to new programs and, together with close colleague Michael McCord of the Learning Project, became part of the “Back Bay Heads” group.
With Hildred’s guidance, John Winthrop teachers made informal home visits in order to get to know children where they were most comfortable and build relationships with parents. She became adept at identifying children who could benefit from close assessment, and was an important resource for families trying to cope with all aspects of parenting. In addition to participating in the state subsidy program for low-income families, Hildred worked hard to endow a scholarship fund to ensure additional inclusivity. She created a training program at John Winthrop that mentored student teachers from Wheelock, Lesley and Fisher Junior colleges, and together with one of the John Winthrop parents medical students from Boston University, in order that they observe well children and understand typical development before treating ill children. Tuition vouchers generated by the training program provided continuing education opportunities for John Winthrop teachers and for Hildred herself, who by choice always held a teaching position in the program in addition to her director responsibilities. Hildred earned a master’s degree in education from Wheelock College in 1975.
Hildred created rich learning opportunities for John Winthrop children inside and outside the classroom. She spotted an empty lot near the school, and convinced the developer to let her use it “for a year or two.” The developer put up a fence, and Hildred and her family cleared out the rubble, scrounged tractor tires and an old boat, bolted together climbing structures, and established a meadow and sand lots to create play inspiration. Eventually a big swing-set was donated, and more people became interested. Hildred’s scavenged vacant lot eventually became the Clarendon Street Playground, a city park that serves the neighborhood.
The school was populated at various times with rabbits, guinea pigs, garter snakes, pet rats, fish, parrot, gerbils, and hamsters, even Madagascar cockroaches from a parent’s lab at BU, and a particularly large white rabbit named Harvey roamed the school. Each year Hildred and the teachers hatched chickens, or ducks, who on occasion would join the children swimming in the pool created by blocking up the drain in the concrete amphitheater in front of the church. The kids went on field trips throughout the city and beyond, including to Hildred’s house in Weston where they could swing and ride on the retired family horse, Friendly. These were simpler times in the childcare business, and enormous fun.
John Winthrop was a family affair. Hildred’s husband, Jack, attended many events and was an unpaid member of the repair and maintenance crew, and two of her children and a daughter-in-law worked as teachers. Four of Hildred’s six grandchildren were able to attend John Winthrop. Indeed, Hildred regarded a good many of “her mothers and fathers” as close friends and stayed in touch with her extended John Winthrop family, following the progress of many, many children for decades.
Hildred was recognized as an asset by the early childhood community of Boston, winning the Kertzman-Powell award for her excellence as the administrator of a well-rounded childcare program. In 2007, Wheelock College awarded Hildred an honorary doctorate in education, and at the presentation, she noted that she “still couldn’t play the piano,” and that “people aren’t supposed to pay attention to women who work in basements with children.” The fact that people did was testament to Hildred’s professionalism and her deeply held belief that work with children and families was the most important and rewarding work one could do. Hildred brought honor to her staff, mentees, and to the field.
Hildred worked well into her 70s, retiring with reluctance several years after her husband, and only when she feared that her age might become a challenge for the school. She and Jack had always enjoyed traveling and were then able to do more, making frequent visits to Europe and exploring Egypt, China, the Galapagos Islands, and the Soviet Union. They also went on many birding trips with Bill Gette of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. They remained very active through their early 90s, enjoying theatre, museums, ballet, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Despite her busy work life, Hildred was an engaged mom who prioritized time and resources for her three children. She and Jack greatly valued education and developmental opportunities such as scouting, music lessons and, for Normandy, the opportunity to own and care for a pony and learn to ride. Hildred always made things happen.
Hildred and Jack acquired property in Wellfleet in the 1950s and eventually built two houses to accommodate reunions of the growing family, with large kitchens where Hildred could indulge her love of cooking for family, and especially for grandchildren. Perhaps due to a deep resonance with her rural upbringing, or perhaps because she just loved the outdoors and valued physical labor, she spent much free time, over many years, working and encouraging her flower and vegetable gardens. Hildred had become a Red Sox fan way back in the 1930s, and was delighted when they finally won the World Series. She also rooted for the Bruins, Patriots, and Celtics, and loved watching tennis. On occasion, she would encounter professional athletes on the street and scold them for their performance in the previous game, reminding them of the high expectations she had of them.
Hildred maintained a large circle of loving friends and family. She had the same expectations for others that she had of herself: keep learning, enjoy life, cherish family and friends, be uncompromising when called for, and step up and do what needs to be done. When family finances were troubled, she went back to work as a nurse during the summers, before John Winthrop became year-round. Hildred traveled by bus to Washington, DC with her family to protest at the second inauguration of Richard Nixon, and for years stood vigil in the Weston town square with husband Jack to protest American involvement in the war in Iraq. She remained true to her New England roots, retaining practicality and a flinty resistance to hypocrisy. She made a difference in many lives, and she will be greatly missed.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday September 14 at 1:00 pm at First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough St, Boston, MA. All are welcome.
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