Sunday, July 22, 2012

Idora Cooley Tucker: March 23, 1921–July 15, 2012

“I have said many times that my life has divided itself quite naturally into three segments: childhood and growing-up years, married life, and life since my husband died. It is the years of my marriage that stand out the most clearly in my memory.” —Idora Tucker, Wife and Mother (2009)

Idora Cooley Tucker, a retired educator who spearheaded special education in Vermont public schools in the 1960s and, in her 88th year, started a memoir-writing group that became known around the state as the Hale Street Gang, died at her home in Randolph on July 15. She was 91.

The eldest of five children of Harry H. Cooley, a lifelong farmer and Vermont’s secretary of state under Governor Philip Hoff, and Gertrude Small Cooley, a farm wife and music teacher, Idora graduated from UVM in 1941. Her first teaching post was a one-room schoolhouse in Randolph Center.

As an itinerant reading specialist in the Randolph schools in the early ’70s, Idora used innovative methods to help children who were not being served by the standard curriculum. “Working with struggling learners is hard work,” she wrote in an account of her teaching career that she penned in her eighties, “and sometimes not as successful as one would wish. Add to that the fact that at first I didn’t really know what I was doing or should be doing. Gradually, over a few years, a combination of trial-and-error experience and graduate level training gave me more strategies to use with my pupils and brought with it more confidence in my ability to help them.”

Idora’s work in Randolph was closely followed by Jean S. Garvin, the state’s director of special educational services, and in 1975, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed into law, Garvin tapped Idora to help schools implement the new regulations at the local level. With the Orange Southwest School District as her proving ground, Idora developed an administrative model that would be used by future special-education coordinators around the state.

“The laws about special education were new and were much resented by almost everyone except parents of the children who needed special education,” Idora wrote. “I was often bitterly attacked in meetings. At first I felt very threatened. Later, I realized that those who gave me such a hard time were merely venting their frustration at doing something they didn’t want to do, and I was the person telling them that the law required it. After that I stopped taking it personally and just went about doing my job to the best of my ability.”

In 1980, Garvin recruited Idora for a job that would bring her skills to other school districts. “In 1980, the federal law was only two years into implementation and there was a lot of groundwork to be laid,” remembered Judy Eklund, a former colleague in the Department of Education, in a phone interview last week. “Idora was at the forefront of making that happen. She was a visionary and an organizer, and she knew how to get the job done.” Over the next six years, Idora traveled some 120,000 miles over Vermont roads to arrange teacher training around the state.

Born on March 23, 1921, at Gifford Hospital in Randolph, Idora grew up in a family that prized education. The Cooley farm in Randolph Center was a place where one might mow hay or put up beans all day and then sit down in the evening to play Mozart for a gathering of friends and neighbors. “Mom and Dad were very courageous to send me off to college that fall of 1937,” she wrote in a memoir that she entitled Childhood and published in 2008. “We were still not quite out of the Great Depression, war in Europe was imminent, and I was the first of five who would be expected to acquire an education.”

As the wife of Dr. Ransom E. Tucker, a Randolph obstetrician, Idora raised five children and did what she described as “the kinds of volunteer teaching that mothers did then: Brownie Scouts, church school, junior choir, ski instructor.” She and her husband also served on the board of Randolph’s first special-education class, a local initiative that was funded and supervised by the state at a time when the 1975 federal law mandating a free and appropriate education for all school-age children was a decade in the future.

After retiring from the Department of Education in 1986, Idora mentored young teachers through the Upper Valley Teacher Training Program, then returned to the classroom as a volunteer at the Rumney School in Middlesex, where her three granddaughters were students.

An accomplished pianist and a voracious and wide-ranging reader, Idora inherited her father’s love of books and her mother’s passion for music. The shelves behind the Steinway in her front parlor bulged with sheet music, and get-togethers at the Tucker house often turned into songfests with Idora as accompanist. In her eighties, she shelved books as a volunteer for Kimball Library and participated in three different book groups that met monthly.

In November 2011, at the age of 90, she stood up at the speaker’s podium in the Vermont State House, a small figure with a bright smile and sparkling blue eyes, and read an excerpt from her memoirs to a gathering of Vermont historians. With her were members of the Hale Street Gang, the memoir-writing group she started at the Randolph Senior Center in the fall of 2008.

Like Harry Cooley, a farmer, teacher, and politician, she did not hesitate to state her beliefs. Her memoir Wartime ends with a passionate warning about the “futile and wasteful endeavor called war,” and members of her church remember the quiet firmness with which she urged the congregation to adopt an “open and affirming” attitude toward all, regardless of sexual orientation. She was still articulating her ideas about education reform at the end of her life, and in her final days she advised young family members to “go your own route.”

As the family matriarch, Idora kept in touch with relatives all over the country and was the magnet that drew them together. She continually expanded her circle of friends even into her nineties, taking a special interest in newcomers to the Randolph community. As news of her death spread and messages poured out on Facebook, a friend who met Idora when they became neighbors in 2008 remembered her as “honest, caring and curious . . . the memoirs she shared with us tell of a life that admitted it all—the good and bad, the joy and sadness, the breath and death.”

Although people sometimes worried that she took on too much, especially after Ransom’s death, Idora herself believed she had nothing to complain about. On the contrary, she considered that she had led an interesting and fulfilling life.

A woman of many accomplishments, Idora considered her most important role to be the raising of her children and grandchildren. She spent her final days with them, as well as two of her siblings and their families. She experienced no pain and although “very tired,” she was able to enjoy home-cooked meals, bouquets of flowers cut from her garden, and keeping up with the Red Sox. Her last outing was to join family and friends on her front porch as the Fourth of July parade marched down Highland Avenue.

On Wednesday, July 11, she told her doctors and her family that she was ready to go and she hoped that she could manage a graceful exit. Practical, wise, and dignified to the end, she died four days later in her home of 66 years with family members at her bedside.

She is survived by her daughters Ruth Tucker of Bomoseen, Sara Tucker of Randolph, and Martha Tucker of Montpelier; her sons James Tucker and John Tucker, both of Randolph Center; her sister Ruth Demarest-Godfrey of Brookfield; her brothers Charles H. Cooley of Randolph Center and John H. Cooley of Baldwin, Michigan; and six grandchildren: Shawn Ingram, James R. Tucker, Thomas Texier, Hannah Phillips, Courtney Phillips, and Sara Phillips. She was predeceased by her husband, Dr. Ransom Tucker, in 1972; her sister Marion Stouder; and a grandson, Douglas Ingram.

Memorial services will be held at 10 A.M., Saturday, July 28 at Bethany United Church of Christ in Randolph, with Rev. Robin Junker officiating. There are no calling hours. Private burial will be in the Randolph Center Cemetery at a later date.

Arrangements are under the direction of the Day Funeral Home, Randolph. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Kimball Public Library, N. Main St., Randolph, VT 05060 or to REECH, POB 303, Randolph, VT 05060.

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