StoriesMary Mindess

A Pillar of Lesley

Mary Mindess's unlikely path to Professor Emerita

Professor Emerita Mary Mindess Speaking

It’s hard to think of a more iconic Lesley figure than Professor Emerita Mary Mindess. One of the university’s first professors of Early Childhood Education, she taught at Lesley for 53 years, and helped launch the renowned Kindergarten Conference in 1962. She managed the conference for over 40 years and helped establish the Reggio Emilia Inspired Institute at Lesley, bringing educators from all over the world to promote a theory of early education that emphasizes exploration, self-directed learning, and building relationships. She continues to be a forceful advocate for the university and a beloved figure to generations of faculty, staff, and alumni. In 2012 the university awarded her an honorary doctorate degree in recognition of her immeasurable contributions to Lesley and the field of early childhood education. 

“Mary has one of the most generous and generative spirits I’ve ever met,” says Early Education Professor Lisa Fiore. “She provides such inspiration to so many people—she’s done so much to uplift teachers.”

"Mary has one of the most generous and generative spirits I’ve ever met."
Dr. Lisa Fiore, Professor and Division Co-Chair, Education at Lesley

Training to Teach

But how did she arrive at Lesley? “By accident!” says Mary laughing. “I had no inkling that I’d teach at the college level.” The story isn’t quite that simple but it reflects a different era and her early life as a young wife and mother during a time when women with children were discouraged from working outside the home. “When I was pregnant during my second year at Simmons, the dean said to me ‘I think you should take the semester off—you can’t walk around here being pregnant!’” But her husband, a school superintendent, encouraged her. Mary took classes in early childhood education and speech therapy and studied at the Nursery Training School of Boston, later affiliated with Tufts. “You had to be able to play 100 songs on the piano and recognize all the songs. I am a non-musical person—I love music but I don’t have a very good ear. My husband got a piano and had it delivered to our house so I could pass the test.”

The family moved to New Hampshire and Mary found a job as a speech therapist in a nearby school district. “I was a speech therapist for five schools and I used to drive—one day to this school, that school, and I never was a good driver. So I used to drive up from Charlestown to Claremont and every time I’d stop at the school the building superintendent would know I was coming because every time I turned the corner to this school I’d wind up in the snowbank and they’d have to dig me out. But I was able to do speech therapy and help some children make considerable progress.” 

The family soon returned to Boston and Mary filed an application at Boston University seeking new speech therapy options. But in late August she received an unexpected summons.

Professor Mary Mindess at Alumni Weekend 2017
Mary Mindess at Alumni Weekend in 2017

Lesley Calling

“We’d taken a beach place in Nantasket with no telephone. I’m sitting on the front steps out there and a Western Union messenger on a tricycle delivers a telegram from Dean Clara Thurber at Lesley College saying ‘Please come right away to see me.’ I had no idea where or what Lesley was—there was no internet then! But I figured she’d invited me in—I’d go in. She’d got my name from a list of people who had my credentials—I’d already graduated from nursery training school and I had the speech therapy experience. She called me in a few days before the semester was supposed to start. She was desperate because the person who was teaching early childhood courses at Lesley had just resigned and she didn’t have anybody to teach. She had this enormous desk and I’m sitting on the other side and I said, “well, Dean Thurber, if I take this job…” And she said “oh, no—what do you mean? This is not a job—this is a POSITION—when you take this POSITION.” I haven’t forgotten that. I told her—'I don’t know if I’m the right person. I have two small children at home. I live an hour away. I’m only looking for a part-time job.’ She said ‘well, this POSITION requires only 15 hours a week.’ So I took the job.” 

The demands of the work soon became overwhelming and Mary went back to Dean Thurber to give her notice. “She said ‘Please stay—if you stay, we’ll work out a better schedule.” And I got a schedule like you couldn’t dream of—she tailored it to me. And that was the spirit that was at Lesley. It was part of the Lesley ethos—'how can I help you?’ That was true down the line.”

"She’s just always been interested in helping teachers be better teachers."
Dr. Kori Bardige

The Birth of the New England Kindergarten Conference

When the chance arose for Lesley to sponsor a conference for kindergarten teachers, University President Don Orton called her in and asked her if she would coordinate it. The first New England Kindergarten Conference was held at Lesley in November 1962 and was a runaway success, despite some logistical challenges. “We were inundated with people wanting to register and there was no way of telling them that we don’t have enough space. We were going to hold this conference in the Lesley gym which was at that time the basement of 29 Everett—the library was upstairs. Today you would laugh! But the maintenance person who was in charge said ‘you know what I’ll do? I’m going to move all the library books and furniture against the wall and they can sit there—they won’t be able to see the speakers but they can hear them. Mary, don’t worry about it—I’ll take care of you.’ This fellow hooked up wires all along 29 Everett, to all of those classrooms up there and we filled every single seat, all the way up. Nobody wanted their money back—and we had taken in a lot of money!”

The second kindergarten conference took place on November 22, 1963. Workshops were being held at a hotel near the Lesley campus and the main speaker was scheduled to speak in Sanders Theater after lunch. Mary was in a car heading to Memorial Hall with the main speaker when they heard the announcement over the radio that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. “You’ve got to remember—no one carried any cell phones in those days; no one else at the conference had any idea what had happened. The speaker, Alice Kelliher, had to make the decision whether to go on with that speech. She got up there and told everyone what had happened and they all gasped. She said ‘I know many of you would like to go home to be with your loved ones at this time, but Mary and I have decided that we’ll go ahead with the talk.’ And nobody got up to go out. Everybody stayed in their seats.”

Shaping a Vision

Mary ran the Kindergarten Conference for the next 40 years, bringing in the most intriguing speakers she could find, and purposefully engaging educators with a wide range of different and sometimes conflicting opinions. “There were a lot of tensions in the field of early childhood education at the time—do you teach kids to read? When? What do you do with children who don’t behave? What about inclusive education?— and it was a good thing because it made for a good conference! It was a very unifying thing. Everyone wanted to help make it better.” It was also a unique professional development experience for the students who helped organize the conference. “It was a conference for educators but it was a really good experience for the students too because everybody had a certain job. If you were a senior and had been there at the conference several years you could manage a whole building and have five people under you. And it grew.” 

Growth and openness to new ideas seems fundamental to Mary’s success. Her travels to seek out speakers for the conference exposed her to innovative approaches in the field and she was always eager to share them and to encourage other educators to contribute their own expertise and experience. “She’s an innovator,” says doctoral student and adjunct faculty member Kori Bardige. “She was the first professor at Lesley to have a computer, the first to teach a course online. She’s just always been interested in helping teachers be better teachers.” 

A Lasting Legacy

Professor Andi Edson who teaches in Lesley’s Early Childhood Education department and directs the Lesley New Teachers Community first met Mary through the kindergarten conferences and credits her with empowering generations of educators, herself included. “Mary had this uncanny ability to find young teachers and quietly yet forcefully give them their voices. Early in my career, Mary called and asked me whether I could be on a small panel about school readiness and developmentally appropriate education. I hesitated, but she quickly got me talking about what I knew and believed, and then I said yes.  It turned out to be a HUGE session in front of at least 200 people and I loved doing it. I said yes to her every time she asked after that."

Lisa Fiore recalls Mary reaching out to her early on during her time at Lesley.  “We were sitting together in a faculty meeting and she slid a note to me, asking if I know anything about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. She’d been invited to participate in a 3-year phase of inquiry/study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Project Zero, and passed the opportunity along to me. It resulted in a transformative experience for me and for my teaching and learning.”

Mary’s reach wasn’t limited to the education department. When Assistant Professor Bob McGrath first joined the Business department at Lesley in 2007, Mary was assigned to him as a mentor and they instantly formed a warm, respectful relationship. “I learned from her the importance of achieving an integration of the ‘Big Three’ factors in a professor’s life—to balance teaching, scholarship and service consistently over time. She helped me discover my self-confidence and come into my own.”

In retirement, Mary continues to thrive on learning and the network of supportive connections she helped shape at the university. She belongs to a book club and a French conversation group and takes classes to learn new computer skills. Mary is currently working with Kori Bardige to compile a history of the Kindergarten Conference and visits the Lesley campus often for special events, including Alumni Weekend. A scholarship in her name was created to honor her immeasurable contribution to Lesley and her legacy of innovation and lifelong learning. But it’s the network of powerful relationships she built that may be her most lasting gift.

“What’s encouraging,” says Bob McGrath, “is to think of how many people she impacted, as she did me. There are literally generations of people she has lifted up, inspired, consoled, and cheered on.

Do you have memories of or stories about the Kindergarten Conference? Mary and Kori would love to hear from you. Email

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