Joseph M. Cronin, first Massachusetts secretary of education, dies at 85

“In order to really give poor people in the inner city a chance to compete,” he told the Globe, “we will have to spend more on their education than on the average child in other communities.”

Dr. Cronin, who in his long, multifaceted career as an educator had also served as president of what is now Bentley University, died Saturday in the Pat Roche Hospice Home in Hingham of progressive supranuclear palsy. He was 85 and had lived in Milton for many years.

As he prepared to retire in 1997 from leading what was then Bentley College, he received a letter from nearly 20 colleagues who signed themselves as “the faculty and staff of color.”

“Under your leadership diversity has become a business imperative for the college,” they wrote. “Your leadership in diversity has resulted in many of us joining the Bentley community.”

When Dr. Cronin first arrived in 1991 to serve as president, he stressed that he wanted the college to prepare graduates to be global thinkers ready for careers anywhere in the world.

“Businesses want people who are versatile, who can go, say, to Zimbabwe for a week on a special assignment, and they had better have had courses in government and history to absorb this,” Dr. Cronin told the Globe. “We want them to be ready.”

As Massachusetts secretary of education in the early 1970s, he played a key role in implementing Chapter 766, the state’s special education law that became a model for legislation in other states.

Dr. Cronin also was credited with increasing state support of the arts and humanities in public education, from $250,000 to $2.5 million

He served as state secretary of education for three years before leaving to become superintendent of schools in Illinois. As with the education secretary post, he was the first to fill that newly created position.

In Illinois, he was hired by and answered to a recently formed state Board of Education and he stayed until 1980.

“The biggest dream the board had was to desegregate the remaining 30 city school districts. By 1980, 20 of them did so,” Dr. Cronin wrote in 1981.

The efforts by Dr. Cronin and the state board “won us mixed reviews,” he noted in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

The Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly, “said we kicked the door of racial segregation down” in persuading Chicago’s school officials to desegregation numerous schools.

But the Chicago Tribune, he added, “called me ‘one of the most imperious and extravagant bureaucrats in the history of Illinois,’ which prose I found somewhat extravagant.”

Joseph Marr Cronin was born in Dorchester on Aug. 30, 1935, the oldest of four siblings.

His father, Joseph Michael Cronin, was an accountant and an attorney. His mother, Mary Marr Cronin, had been a secretary for the Marr family’s construction business.

Dr. Cronin’s family moved to Milton when he was a boy and he graduated from Boston College High School in 1952.

He went to Harvard College, where he studied history and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1956.

Though he had been accepted to attend Harvard Law School, “he really got interested in education and serving other people,” said his daughter Kathy of Milton.

Dr. Cronin graduated from Harvard with a master’s in teaching in 1957. Early in his career, he taught in schools in Massachusetts and Palo Alto, Calif., before becoming assistant principal and then principal of a large junior high school in Rockville, Md.

“Thirty months as a school administrator convinced me of the need for more knowledge,” he wrote in the 10th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

He graduated from Stanford University with a doctorate in education in 1965 and returned east to teach for seven years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he became an associate dean.

By then he was moving a growing family back and forth across the country. He and Marie Whalen married in 1958. They raised seven children and their marriage ended in divorce after 47 years.

At Harvard, Dr. Cronin also led a 1970 study, called the Cronin Report, which made more than 200 recommendations for improving Boston’s schools.

Little more than a year after the report was released, Governor Francis W. Sargent appointed Dr. Cronin to be the state’s first education secretary.

Teaching and holding administrative posts from one coast to the other and back again could be challenging, he conceded.

“At times I feel like a migrant worker — eight assignments, five public, three private, in four states,” he wrote in his 25th anniversary Harvard class report.

He also served on numerous boards, including those for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Nellie Mae Corp., the Boston Plan for Excellence, and the Friends of the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in Newbury, N.H.

In addition, Dr. Cronin chaired the President’s Council at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., and was a founding board member of the Colonel Daniel Marr Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester, which was named for one of his uncles.

“My dad was really proud of his work and his life of service to others,” Kathy said.

In addition to his daughter and former wife, Dr. Cronin leaves four other daughters, Maureen Peterson of Milton, Elizabeth of Norwood, Anne of Arlington, Va., and Patti Fertig of Roswell, Ga.; two sons, Tim of Milton and Joe of Hingham; two brothers, John of Milton and Tom of Colorado Springs, Colo.; a sister, Kathy Dowd Webster Groves, Mo.; 19 grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and his companion, Elizabeth Cook of Needham.

The family will hold a private funeral Mass. A memorial celebration of Dr. Cronin’s life will be announced.

A voracious reader who wrote poetry for nearly every occasion, Dr. Cronin passed along to his children his love of spending time at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, his fondness for gardening, and his zeal for promoting racial equality.

“He really ingrained in us that it’s not enough just to be upset about it, you have to go out and do something about it, too,” Kathy said.

Dr. Cronin, she said, was as much a teacher at home as he was at work.

“Over the years I have been teacher, principal, professor, dean, cabinet secretary, state education commissioner, corporation president, consultant, senior fellow to three groups, and served on dozens of nonprofit and for-profit boards,” he wrote in 2011. “The most enjoyable role is that of teacher.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]

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