Dreams of a ‘real community’

  • Mary Leue, 97, in her Ashfield home with the Boston Post Gold Cane she received for being Ashfield’s eldest resident. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mary Leue Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mary Leue in her green house. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mary Leue of Ashfield. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/30/2017 9:45:07 AM

At 97, Mary Leue of Ashfield reaches back easily to pull out a couple of memories of growing up in her family of six children in a suburb west of Boston.

“My father was busy as an ob-gyn and was gone most of time. My mother realized we needed freedom. She used to let me go, and I’d run barefoot all over town.”

Leue is seated at the kitchen table on a morning chilly enough to keep a fire going in the woodstove at the Cape Street house her mother and a girlfriend had found after a long horse-and-buggy ride in 1908. There are shelves crammed with books, and her iPad, on which she had been playing Mahjong a few minutes earlier, is in front of her.

She launches into another vivid memory. It’s about the first-grade schooling she received from her grandmother, who had been a teacher years earlier, at a point when the family was moving from one town to another.

“She let me do what I wanted to do, and I just grew by leaps and bounds,” says Leue, whose greatest claim to fame is creating the Albany Free School in 1969. “I realized kids don’t need all this repetition, like lock-step learning, where you can’t learn about adjectives until you’ve learned about verbs, and whatever.”

Ever a free spirit, Leue recalls seizing the opportunity to set up what today claims to be, “the oldest independent inner-city alternative school in the United States.”

The idea for the school fell into place after the youngest of her five children came home hating his fifth-grade experience — “a mix of boredom, anonymity and curricular oppression on the part of his teacher, who was fixated on long division, both for homework and the following morning’s classwork every day,” according to Leue’s three-volume published memoir.

“Mark’s teacher was over retirement age and she was very cranky,” Leue recalls. “Mark said to me, ‘You can teach. Let me stay home and you can teach me. She’s just awful.”

Leue had gotten her undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr, followed by a nursing degree, and after working on a master’s in psychology at Texas Women’s University, she continued graduate studies at the State University of New York at Albany — with a lot of frustration.

As someone who had loved studying Freud and Jung while in Texas, Leue found at SUNY, “They were gung-ho rat psychologists. I couldn’t stand it! They were focused on statistics, and I hate statistics!”

Rather than run their maze, she said, “I fought with it. I had had my elegant designs for a thesis: I wanted to do something in education, I had a lovely program to balance boy, girl, mother, father, which was more influential. ‘No! You cant’ do that!’

“So I quit. Who needs it? Who wants it?”

She had taught in Texas, done tutoring in Maine and done religious education work at the Unitarian church in Albany, where her Harvard-trained husband had taken a job teaching philosophy in 1961. Now, after returning from her husband’s sabbatical year in England, their 10-year-old son, Mark, was encouraging her to run free once more.

Leue launched into home schooling Mark — who now lives nearby. Lessons included for the first Earth Day collecting 20 bags of garbage from an embankment. They also included helping out at a day-care center, putting on plays, learning to develop film and making movies, plus cooking and baking.

Soon after she began, a friend asked if Leue could teach three of her children as well.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to go on with this,’” she recalls.

Leue had learned from a Schenectady minister about Summerhill, the alternative boarding school in England set up less than two years after she was born. After reading about the original “free school” and corresponding with its founder, A.S. Neill, “I decided I wanted to start a school like Summerhill in downtown Albany. … It just seemed like the right way to teach kids.”

(Neill responded to Leue’s idea of establishing an inner-city free school in this country, “I would think myself daft to try!”)

Her school — which emphasized that student families could pay just what they could afford and cook, clean or otherwise help out, grew.

“Kids kept coming by and asked, ‘What you doing here? This is a school? Can I come?’” Leue recalls.

“Gradually, I accumulated more and more (kids) from the neighborhood,” which had recently become an African-American ghetto. “At the same time, (SUNY) faculty members who heard about the school, asked for their kids to come. We developed a really nice mix. It was very lively. We had a really nifty, wild school.”

One hurdle had been convincing school officials to let her run with her plans. Yet she found a friend in the head of the city’s education department who became a strong supporter of the school she built in her home.

“We used to have pie nights — we would sell pie, and would have a big dinner, with a pie auction. He always came,” she says.

And as it grew, the school outgrew her home. Leue, using money her mother had left her, gradually bought an old, former church building.

Eventually, she bought several abandoned buildings in the South End neighborhood at auction, including an old barn and a four-story tenement — in part to house staff who were attracted from around the country, as well as teaching interns. (The interns had come from Antioch University at the suggestion of her son, Tom, who was studying there and now also lives nearby.)

“We’d go bid, and were often the only bidders,” Leue says. “And we’d get it for free.”

Tales of yore

Mary Macomber Leue, two and a half years shy of a century, admits that trying to remember recent events isn’t so good. But when it comes to recalling episodes from years ago, there’s little stopping her.

At 9, she recalls, “My father outfitted a Model A Ford truck with iron hoops in the bed and a canvas cover with roll-up windows to keep the rain out — and boards to stretch across as seats.

All six kids went with her parents and godmother, her mother’s friend, “Bucky” Freeman, headed out West for a camping trip just before the Great Depression.

“I’ll never forget; we went through Canada on gravel roads. It was just a terrible racket all the way west to Alberta and British Columbia. But it was spectacular scenery, and the Canadians had very good tourist camps.”

Leue remembers her brothers’ fights along the way and “the way Bucky kept us from fighting, because the twins were always punching each other and teasing the girls, was she told us stories. She was a wonderful storyteller and told us about Birdseed, who was a boy, and his friend, a pirate named Squint Eye. The adventures of Birdseed and Squinteye just poured out of her. She was amazing.”

Her mother and Bucky — a Smith College theater professor with whom she had a lesbian relationship — had come upon the Ashfield house they named “Journey’s End” after a long buggy ride from Northampton, and bought it, with 100 surrounding acres, for $500. The house, which they had restored as a family getaway, as well as a summer farm camp for young working girls from Boston, also holds fond memories of Leue’s own visits as “the high point of my summer” growing up.

At 14, her father invited her one day to come along while he saw his patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. She recalls, “Here I was in his Ford V-8, sitting at the curb in the summertime, and it went on for a long time. I went into the glove compartment, and there was this booklet, ‘How to Drive a Ford.’ So I taught myself to drive just sitting there … several hundred times waiting for him.”

Later on, when Bucky asked her to come with her out to Ashfield, Leue told her, “I can drive!” So her godmother got out and let her drive all the way from Framingham to Ashfield.

“I’d never driven on a real road before,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve got nerve. I had no business doing any of that. I didn’t lie to her; I just didn’t tell her how I’d managed to learn.”

‘A genius’

The Albany Free School is still operating with about 40 students ages 2 through 14, with a preschool component that Leue set up. “Like 48 years, by far the oldest in the country,” Leue says. It may be her greatest claim to fame, but it’s not the only one.

Leue, who had worked briefly as an obstetric and pediatric nurse in 1950 at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, went on to be a labor coach, childbirth educator, pregnancy and fertility consultant and midwifery teacher 25 years later and founded a pregnancy and childbirth support group as part of the Family Life Center of Albany, today the longest standing independent childbirth support center in New York’s Capital Region.

Jerry Mintz, a Vermont “free school’ founder who began working with Leue in the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools in the 1970s and heads the Alternative Education Resource Organization, says, “She’s a brilliant person who followed up on things we learned from people like Jonathan Kozol, such as ‘You don’t just want to have a tuition-based school for rich kids.’”

Instead, Leue “organized a whole community of people who would fix up a building,” Mintz said, “and eventually the rent money was used to keep the tuition very low, so they could always have a sliding scale and a broad cross-section of students.”

The rental, for housing families and staff, helped generate 60 to 70 percent of the school’s funding, according former school Co-Director Chris Mercogliano.

“The seeds she planted then are bearing fruit now,” says Mintz. Emphasizing “learner-centered” programs and “democratic education” principles, in which students have a say in how the school is run, Leue’s ideas about free education are playing out in charter schools and programs around the world where students are involved in setting policy and curriculum, in peer counseling and even in teaching, he said. “We made it clear to people that the current system wasn’t functioning. There are thousands of alternative schools all over the world still, and there are lots of democratic schools. It’s a fast-growing movement. In Israel there are 30 public democratic schools.”

But all wasn’t roses.

Leue recalls, “Soon after we got organized with enough kids to make a difference, people were coming to me with angry feelings, with unfinished business they had with other kids. She put up a blackboard at the school on what she called “the problem wall.”

“When they came to me with something, I’d say, ‘That sounds like a problem. Want me to write it on the wall for you?’ As they became older, I’d say, ‘Can you write it on the wall?’ It made me realize how you could encourage kids to solve their own problems.”

Later on, she encouraged students to form a problem-solving group, and would tell them, “I’d like to turn this problem over to you.’ Whenever a kid came to me with a problem, I’d say, ‘Have you called a council meeting yet?’ They had a big bell and he’d run out of the room, saying, ‘Council meeting!’”

Mercogliano, who arrived in 1973 at the Free School with his then-girlfriend, Betsy, to teach, says, “Mary was an educational visionary who had a way of connecting with kids right on their level. She particularly knew how to read kids and could just see inside them and had an uncanny understanding what a kid needed in terms of their overall growth as human beings. She was extremely creative and would do magical things with kids, like go digging for buried treasure in the basement. Or we’d bring two dozen inner-city kids to her farm in Ashfield for a week at a time,” so they could “open up to learning.”

Leue, he says, often helped troubled kids who had been turned off from learning and had been labeled failures.

“Mary was just a genius at turning that whole thing around and having those kids fall in love with learning again. She really understood kids on an emotional level,” says Mercogliano, who became co-director of the school after Leue left in 1985 and still volunteers there a couple of mornings a week.

She went on to help create a shared investment and loan program called “The Money Game,” a medically supported midwife-managed pregnancy, birth and parenting program, a weekly support group, “The Group,” to help community members work through conflicts and build interpersonal skills, an “Adult Learning Exchange” community adult-ed program, as well as a publishing house and small bookstore “Down to Earth Books,” and a food co-op, the “Down to Earth Store.”

In 1985, after teaching herself webmastering, she began publishing and editing SKOLE, a journal of grass-roots alternative education, and in 1995, she helped create “The Journal of Family Life,” then continued editing both publications until 1999. In addition to articles in national and international journals of education and psychotherapy, Leue has published 27 Down-to-Earth books, including 10 as author, 17 as editor and five as contributing author.

The proceeds were plowed back into the free school, which also set up a 200-acre outdoor education center in Grafton, N.Y.

The school is surrounded by the community of faculty and staff, students, their families and members of the inner-city neighborhood she built in what might be considered her greatest legacy.

“It’s amazing how much we were able to do with very little money,” Mercogliano says. “Another big piece of Mary’s vision was people living together as a real community, where everybody pitched in and did stuff together. She worked really hard to pull us all into that vision. It was a powerful thing,” with everyone invested in volunteering and offering to train students in everything from cooking to flying a plane.

“The school’s presence made an enormous difference in the neighborhood,” says Mercogliano, who still lives in the neighborhood, along with several of the core teachers who worked alongside Leue.

Most incredible, he adds, “She never asked for a dime. Nada. She just did it, because she cared.”

In 1985, when Leue moved back to Ashfield, where she’d spent summers as a girl, she returned to gardening, which she had always loved. Growing asparagus, and planting the seeds from an apple to grow seedlings, which she says she then transplanted.

“Now they’re bearing, and all of them had blossoms this spring,” says Leue, showing a special appreciation for their uniqueness, as she did with teaching. “Each one is different, so I have different names for them.”


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