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Retired Northampton educator Kathleen Sheehan dies at 85

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Retired Northampton educator Kathleen M. "Kay" Sheehan, left, seen here in April 2011 with Priscilla Ross, died Monday at age 85.

While her name is synonymous with the Leeds School, where she was principal from 1969 to 1992, Sheehan gave her time to dozens of municipal and charitable causes in her quest to make her beloved Northampton a better community.

Her legacy includes three buildings in Northampton which bear her name, numerous awards recognizing her volunteer work and legions of people — including former students who years later still called her “Miss Sheehan” and credited her with teaching them how to be respectful — who have lost a dear friend.

“The two most important things in her life were the schoolchildren and the city of Northampton,” Jean Curran, a retired teacher who lives in Florence, said Tuesday. “I don’t know anyone as dedicated to their community as Kay Sheehan was to Northampton.

“She was extremely generous with her time on committee after committee. She really cared,” added Curran, who graduated from Northampton High School with Sheehan in 1945. “And she was very generous with her friends — she was always sending flowers on any occasion.”

Lois Siegel, another retired teacher who lives in Northampton, knew Sheehan for more than 40 years. “I met her when she became principal of Leeds School — I was teaching French and we just kind of bonded. She always wanted to do what’s best for the school and the community.

“She didn’t do any of it for credit or glory, but because it was the right thing to do, it needed to be done,” Siegel continued. “She was a great mentor and encouraged me to take on civic things because it was the right thing.”

Joice Gare of Jackson Street is another longtime friend who often went out to lunch with Sheehan and drove her to meetings of Dollars for Scholars in Northampton as her health declined in recent years.

Gare recalled how they when they ate at one of Sheehan’s favorite restaurants, the Bluebonnet Diner on King Street, she would be greeted “all along the way as went to our seats” by former students. “And on a certain day when priests got together for lunch there, Kay would go have a chat with them.

“Everywhere she went, she knew someone,” added Gare.

For many years Sheehan lived on Hastings Heights in Florence and attended Blessed Sacrament Church in Northampton, where she was a eucharistic minister. After a stroke about three years ago, Sheehan moved to the Lathrop Communities in Easthampton.

Despite her declining health, Sheehan continued to attend church regularly. “She would go in the van from Lathrop to the 9:30 Mass at Annunciation Church” in Florence, recalled Curran. “It touched the heart to see her — the strong leader that she was — coming up the ramp with her walker to get to church.”

A funeral for Sheehan will be held at Annunciation, 82 Beacon St., at 11 a.m. Friday.

Sheehan came from a family of educators. Her mother, Helen (Shannon) Sheehan, taught at the former Florence Grammar School and also was a high school physical education teacher at the former D.A. Sullivan School on New South Street.

The Sullivan School annex, which was built in 1913 and later converted to residential and office space, was named for Kathleen Sheehan in 2004.

“When they told me, I was really very moved,” Sheehan said at the time. “I feel that I’m representing all the female educators who have taught in the public schools of Northampton.”

After earning her bachelor of science and master in education degrees from what was then known as Westfield State College, Sheehan began her career as a sixth-grade teacher at the Leeds School and then a fifth-grade teacher at the former South Street School before becoming a guidance counselor at the then-John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Florence and finally principal at Leeds in 1969.

It was during her 23-year tenure as principal that Sheehan is remembered for setting high standards for her staff and students, and for her big heart. Though she had no biological children, she mothered hundreds who attended her school.

Her former colleagues recalled how Sheehan would quietly help children from families of modest means who could not always afford essentials such as clothing or extras like music lessons.

When Sheehan retired, Gliffie Ennis-Yentsch, a former PTO president whose three children attended Leeds School, recalled her first encounter with the principal.

“When I first met her, before I had kids in the school, she was talking to a child on the bench outside her office,” Ennis-Yentsch told the Gazette in 1992. “She was comforting him, yet she was clearly making him aware of what behavior she expected the next time.

“She struck me as like a Mother Superior — I didn’t know whether she was a parent or not, but she seemed to be a motherly type.

“She has high expectations for herself and that rubs off on the kids and teachers. ... She’s inspired my sense of citizenship and desire to help improve my community like nobody since President Kennedy.”

Sheehan oversaw the $6.7 million addition to the Leeds School, and at a ceremony marking its completion in April 1991, the library was dedicated in her honor.

Sheehan’s time and leadership benefited scores of institutions in Northampton during the past half-century. She was on the board of Cooley Dickinson Hospital from 1975 to 1996, including serving as vice chairwoman from 1980 to 1994, and received its William E. Dwyer Distinguished Service Award in 1992. The children’s room at the hospital was dedicated to her in 1996.

She was a leader for the United Way of Hampshire County from 1963 until recently, and received its Norman H. Drouin Distinguished Service Award in 1998.

Sheehan was the first woman president of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and was named its “citizen of the year” in 1974.

One of the founders of the Northampton chapter of Dollars for Scholars, which raises scholarship money for high school graduates, Sheehan was one of three founding board members honored in 2010 with a scholarship in her name.

And in 2004, Sheehan received the first Coolidge Award for a lifetime of community service as part of the Paragon Awards created by the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Hampshire County chapter of the American Red Cross.

Her friends say that Sheehan, however, did not need all that recognition. She simply wanted to do good things for her community, and she accomplished that in ways big and small.

As a member of the Northampton Beautification Committee, she helped bring flower buckets to Main Street. “She would put a big pail of water in her car and go up and down Main Street watering them,” Curran recalled. “The fact that she lugged water by herself ... was a sight to see.”

And Sheehan is remembered by many for organizing trips to Europe during school vacation week in April, a tradition that continued for more than 40 years.

“We had a wonderful time on those European trips,” Curran said. “People saw the adventurous side to her and she was a wonderful leader of those trips.

“I never knew any person, no matter what their station in life, who cared so much about the people in Northampton.”

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