Lorraine Garnett Ward (1949-2017)
A “Clarion Voice” Remembered
by Laurie O'Neill
While Lorraine Garnett Ward’s eighth grade class at Fenn were discussing All Quiet on the Western Front many years ago, some students said they felt sad when the protagonist, Paul, returns home on leave to discover his mother is dying of cancer. Noticing that his teacher’s eyes had filled with tears, one of the boys touched her arm and said, “Are you all right? Should we go on?” His reaction was so concerned and adult-like, Lorraine would recall, that she began laughing and crying at the same time, while assuring him that she was fine.
Later, after her own cancer diagnosis, when she had taken a leave from the classroom, members of that same eighth grade class visited her at home. One of the boys gave her a new copy of the Remarque novel. Inside he had written, “I hope you will read it with your grandson and enjoy it as much as I did when I read it with you.”
Stories like this about Lorraine abound. Throughout her long career as a teacher and mentor she was known for her openness and empathetic nature and the deep and lasting connections she forged at the large and diverse public high school in Canada where she began her career, through her many years as a head of house and then a class dean at Wellesley College, and in her work at Fenn both in the classroom and in partnership with her husband, Jerry, who was appointed Fenn’s headmaster in 1993.
When asked what was most important to her as a teacher, Lorraine once said, “A willingness to be open to others and to the paradoxes of being human in a world that can be so beautiful and so terrible at the same time.”
Surrounded by her family at her Concord, Massachusetts, home, Lorraine passed away peacefully on March 9. She was 67 and faced her illness with grace, humor, and a “valiant” spirit, said her oldest son, John. Diagnosed in 2006 with Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer, Lorraine’s prognosis was grim, but under the care of Dr. Jerry Younger and nurse practitioner Nancy Schaeffer at Massachusetts General Hospital, she fought on, receiving treatment every three weeks for the rest of her life while remaining actively involved in life at Fenn.
In addition to her husband, Lorraine leaves her sons John, 37, James, 34, and Matt, 32, and their wives; three grandchildren; her brothers John Garnett and Steven Garnett, and her sister, Julie Garnett. A funeral Mass was held for Lorraine at Saint Florence Church in Wakefield in March, and a celebration of her life is planned for Saturday, May 6, in Ward Hall at The Fenn School.
Born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, Lorraine had humble, quintessentially American roots. Her father, Vernon “Tex” Garnett, a tall, soft-spoken Texan from the rugged hill country west of Austin, and her mother Gilda “Jill” Benedetto, a “pint-sized, first generation Italian spark plug,” according to Lorraine’s son John, met while working in an army intelligence office in Paris during World War II. As the second child but first daughter of four children, Lorraine was “tapped to be domestic lieutenant and matriarch-in-training at a young age,” he added, which likely inspired the drive, strong will, and sense of duty that characterized her as an adult.
“When I was born, my sister, who was then six, put away her dolls and said, ‘Now I have a real doll to love,’” recalled Julie.
Lorraine’s childhood was spent immersed in her mother’s big extended Italian family. Even as a young girl she was encouraged to participate in the frequently “male-dominated and raucous” family debates on politics, religion, and history that were held over platters of steaming pasta served after Sunday Mass, said John.
Graduating as salutatorian of the class of 1967 at Wakefield High School, Lorraine had written for the school paper and yearbook, played the clarinet and guitar, ran several clubs, and was voted Most Ambitious and Most Likely to Succeed. A defining moment for her was when she was elected to be president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter by her peers, but the faculty moderator said that it would not be appropriate for a girl to hold this position.
Shortly after, Lorraine made a decision she would say was among the best of her life: she had earned early acceptance to and would attend Mt. Holyoke, where her opportunities to use her voice and hone her leadership skills would be unlimited. She majored in religion, became fluent in Spanish, studied at Oxford during a semester abroad, and became a political activist. She treasured the close and lasting friendships she formed with many of her classmates.
Lorraine “will be sorely missed by all of us who will remember her clarion voice, her focused empathy, and her amazing ability to truly listen to everyone, and, even more unusual, to want to hear them,” said Susan Stearns, one of Lorraine’s classmates at Mr. Holyoke College.
“No Mt. Holyoke graduate better represented this amazing women’s college,” said Susan. “Lorraine understood the value of education in all its guises, from the formal classroom to the sit-around-and-gab fest.”
After graduation, an urge for adventure led Lorraine to Canada. She did her graduate work at McGill University in Montreal, earning a master’s degree in Philosophy of Religion and a certificate in education from McGill University. She began teaching English at Howard S. Billings Regional High School in Chateauguay, Quebec, where the student body was comprised largely of second generation Scotch Irish, French Canadians, and American Indians from the nearby Mohawk Reservation. Much of Lorraine’s work involved counseling underprivileged children born into alcoholism and poverty.
Among her former Billings students who posted a note of condolence to the Wards was Cathy Seary of British Columbia, who said her teacher “had a way of making me, a fifteen-year-old high school girl, feel that I mattered—not an easy feat.”
Lorraine’s experiences in Canada were the basis for a life-long commitment to teaching and mentoring students. Her “always open heart,” into which, her sister Julie said, “everyone was welcome,” informed her work with young people.
Lorraine’s next stop was Boston University, where she had applied for a position in the admissions department. During her first job interview, a knock sounded on the director’s door and in came a young assistant director of admissions and BU alumnus named Jerry Ward to ask his colleague conducting the interview a question and then to apologize for the interruption. It was there he saw Lorraine for the first time.
Very shortly thereafter Lorraine was hired, tasked with recruiting students from New England High Schools and leading the admissions committees for the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Basic Studies. Her responsibilities would require a close working relationship with Jerry, and a partnership budded that soon bloomed into love over late night dinners and long conversations. She was drawn to his strong work ethic, quiet demeanor, and soulful Irish eyes; he to her brainy confidence, feistiness, and easy smile. They were married in January of 1979 at the university’s Marsh Chapel.
While her first son, John, was one-year-old, Lorraine began what would become a twenty-year career at Wellesley. After serving as Head of House of Munger Dormitory for three years, she transitioned to the position of Class Dean, providing individualized academic and personal advising to hundreds of young women in the classes of 1987, 1990, 1993, 1996 and 2000. She held a writing lectureship, developed two new courses, designed the First Year Experience program, and won a teaching prize.
Throughout her years at the college, Lorraine “was fiercely loyal to her Wellesley ‘daughters,’” said Chris Bicknell Marden, a 1990 graduate. “She challenged us, asked probing questions, tried to learn where our hearts were, and then pushed us to grow.”
Lorraine helped Chris polish her student commencement speech, in which the latter challenged current thinking on race and privilege, at a moment when the campus was embroiled in controversy: an invitation to First Lady Barbara Bush to deliver the keynote had been met with a protest from a large group of students who believed Mrs. Bush was not the type of career woman Wellesley sought to educate. The protest touched off a storm of media coverage.
“She reminded us that we had a right to our conversation and our opinions,” said Chris. “So much self-confidence in one’s early years is strengthened by people who look at you and say ‘Yes You Can’ when your internal voices are not so sure.”
Pamela Daniels, a colleague and mentor of Lorraine’s at Wellesley, said that for the latter, “every moment was a teaching moment, and she always found the words to convince you that you could live up to her high standards and ideals, and to her belief and trust in you. She was irresistible.”
When Lorraine’s husband was appointed as headmaster at Fenn, the partnership fueled by love, respect, and support they had forged early on was both essential and evident. As the spouse of the head, Lorraine served as the hostess for the greater school community of parents, alumni, and trustees, and when she left Wellesley in 2000, she worked as a volunteer in the Fenn development office and covered faculty maternity leaves. When a position opened, she began teaching English and Social Studies and serving as a department chair.
Lorraine’s openness, warmth, and accessibility immediately drew both students and colleagues to her, said Jerry, and she was “a de facto mentor” to the faculty, particularly to young teachers who were just starting out. “She was so many things in one remarkable person, including friend, mother figure, sister figure, even giggling co-conspirator,” said Tricia McCarthy, head of the Lower School.
Kathy Starensier, former Intensive Literacy Program teacher for many years, said she “admired Lorraine’s honesty—with herself, her students, her colleagues, and with life,” adding that Lorraine “always moved us towards our best selves.”
Over her nearly twenty-four years at Fenn, Lorraine filled her campus home with mementoes representing many countries and cultures, student artwork, and fresh flowers. She was a voracious reader whose tastes ran from Shakespeare and contemporary poetry to educational methodology, spirituality, architecture, interior design, and even celebrity gossip. Her husband said with a smile that Lorraine possessed “an encyclopedic knowledge” of Hollywood stars and a fondness for People magazine.
A natural storyteller, Lorraine was known for a tendency to embellish and an inability to suppress her own laughter and delight during her delivery, which often made it difficult for her to finish and proved contagious to her listeners. “Her stories were glorious, sometimes touching, and often hysterical, and she enthralled us all,” said Julie.
A long-time advocate of single sex education, Lorraine wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in The Boston Globe in 2006, “Good single sex schools allow young people to release themselves temporarily from the developmental and learning differences between the sexes, and from the undue burden of the hyper-sexualized society in which they live, giving them the opportunity to explore freely what it means to be human.”
Rob Gustavson, former assistant head of school at Fenn and now the head of school at Fay School, said that “as a feminist at a boys’ school, Lorraine viewed her mission as helping to build good men. She was a passionate defender of boys’ inherent tenderness and innocence and promoted acceptance, respect, and appreciation for boys.”
After her retirement in 2011, Lorraine remained deeply invested in the life of the school, coaching the ninth graders as they prepared their Senior Reflections, short speeches about memorable people or experiences. As the boys delivered their stories to the assembled community, Lorraine would be in the front row, reassuring each boy before he often nervously took to the stage and beaming at him as he delivered his talk. “Her ultimate goal was to help each student find his own authentic voice,” Rob said.
In recent years Lorraine cherished spending time with her growing number of grandchildren, to whom she was devoted, walking her eldest to his bus or pushing the youngest in his stroller around campus and stopping to chat animatedly with teachers and students who crossed her path. On Friday afternoons for a number of years until this winter, she invited ninth grade students to the headmaster’s house for “Pen to Paper” sessions that featured cookies, poetry writing, and discussions about life.
Lorraine “interacted with us in a way that was tailored to each boy; she instilled in us a sense of being proud of who we were as individuals and made each one of us feel special,” recalls Tad Scheibe ’16. “I will remember those Friday afternoons forever.”
At an assembly held to mark her passing, current ninth graders joined their recollections of Lorraine to produce a poem that they read to the gathering, each boy delivering a line. “She encouraged me to embrace who I really am,” said one, while another offered, “She’s shown me what it means to live a full, honest, and happy life.”
“Life teaches us,” Lorraine wrote on a Fenn faculty blog, “as cancer has taught me, how fragmented, temporary, and beyond our control much of it is. Life is an imperfect journey, at best, especially when it comes to raising our children. However, it also gives us glimpses into the transcendence that seems to be lurking behind much of what we do when we love freely and do good work, making it possible for us to claim for ourselves moments of pure joy.”