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Teacher's Travels Broadened Horizons Of All Who Knew Her

July 1, 2007
By ANNE M. HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer

Mary J. Cromwell, 85, of Hartford, died March 18.

Mary Cromwell was a teacher with a sense of adventure that took her to Korea, India, China and Africa.

She grew up in Bloomfield and Hartford and graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1939. Her father, Thomas Cromwell, was a chef who worked for a local judge and was one of the founding members of the Bloomfield volunteer firefighters. At the time, Bloomfield was a mostly white town, but her father, who was African American, was welcomed by the group, and an award is still presented annually in his name. Her mother, Isabelle, was a homemaker, and Mary had a brother and two sisters.

Her parents stressed the importance of college, but because money was tight, it took Cromwell six years to graduate from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. To help finance her education, she worked in a preschool program organized by the Women's League in Hartford. It was in the early 1940s, and women wanted to work in the factories and needed childcare.

"It was wartime," recalls her younger sister, Betty Cromwell Taylor. "Hartford was a 24-hour city. You had three shifts going all the time."

Cromwell was planning to get a teaching job in Hartford but happened to see an advertisement for a Red Cross job in Korea. She was assigned to a Clubmobile, providing food and recreational programs to servicemen still stationed in the country after the end of the Korean conflict.

An account by one of her co-workers details the dangers the young Clubmobile staffers experienced as they drove around the country in their converted army trucks dispensing coffee and doughnuts. The young Red Cross women had little training and little equipment but tried to provide entertainment for the troops and sometimes encountered problems near the DMZ close to the North Korean border.

The Red Cross later sent Cromwell to France, where she learned French and traveled extensively. When she returned to the United States, she was a hospital recreation director in New York and Pennsylvania.

She returned to Hartford in 1956 and began teaching at the Kinsella School.

"She was one of the top teachers in the school," says Charles Boornazian, her former principal. "In any activity, she was in the vanguard."

One of her former students, who went on to become a teacher herself, says Cromwell had been an example and a mentor.

"She was tough on us, very tough, and it paid off in the end," says Kathleen Register, who teaches at Simpson Waverly in Hartford. "I could feel she really cared about her students."

At Kinsella, Cromwell first taught social studies and then second and third grades, and she drew on her own experiences abroad to interest her students in a world larger than Hartford.

"I have a lot of Miss Cromwell's expectations," Register says. "I'm not easy on my students, and I set high expectations." After Register graduated, Cromwell stayed in touch, as she did with many students.

Cromwell continued her education at the University of Connecticut and received a master's degree from Central Connecticut State University. She was nominated as "Teacher of the Year" in 1974 and retired from teaching in 1987.

Cromwell was also involved in her church and her community. She was a founding member of the Blue Hills Civic Association and served on its board, and she was a charter member of the Epsilon Omicron Omega chapter of her college sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and served as its president.

"She was not a person who had a lot to say, but when she spoke, it was to the point, and pointed, and people listened," says Wyrot Ward, president of the group.

"She was a couture dresser," says Ward. "Boutique clothes, very fashionable."

But unlike her sorority sisters who wore the group's colors, Cromwell favored blue and black.

"She was not a pink or green person," Ward says.

At Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford, which she attended since childhood, she was on the board of trustees for 35 years and was named church mother and honored as woman of the year in 1988. For many years, she was on the board of the Greater Hartford Larrabee Fund Association, an old Hartford charity that has helped women in need.

"She was very intelligent, very forthcoming with her compassion for people," says Cindy Lawler, director of the fund. "But she was also very careful, making sure everything was businesslike. She made a very big contribution to the board."

Her family saw a lighter side of Cromwell. "She had a devilish air about her," says Judy Marshall, a niece. "She was like Peck's Bad Boy." She gave everyone a nickname and made the younger members of the family feel special.

"She was old-school, definitely, the t's crossed and the i's dotted," says Marshall. `Let's have fun, but let's remember the learning factor.' She was not of this age, where anything goes."

After she retired, Cromwell traveled extensively - Nairobi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and China, India and Australia. She died of myeloma in March.

"She was very kind and caring," says Carolyn Thomas, a sorority sister. "If there was an issue she was passionate about, she truly spoke her mind. She had ideas about how things should be."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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