'Feisty to the end': Dorothy van den Honert, outspoken education advocate in Pittsfield, dies at 95

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PITTSFIELD Dorothy van den Honert, a longtime member of the Pittsfield School Committee and passionate advocate for public education and other causes, died Saturday. She was 95.

Van den Honert, who would have been 96 in April, died shortly after being placed in hospice care, said her daughter, Polly Searles, of Newton. She had moved from Pittsfield to the Boston area shortly before Christmas to live independently in an apartment at an assisted living facility near her daughter's residence in Newtown.

"She really tolerated it better than I thought she would having lived in the same house in Pittsfield for 60 years," Searles said.

But Searles said her mother fell last week, hurt her head "and never really recovered from the fall." Placed in hospice care following the accident, she died peacefully around 24 hours later, her daughter said.

"It was quite lovely — no tubes, no hospital sounds, just some classical music," Searles said.

Van den Honert, who served on the School Committee for 22 years beginning in 1985, came to Pittsfield from Baltimore in 1948 when her husband, the late Leonard van den Honert, took an executive position with the General Electric Co.'s power transformer division. She developed "Reading from Scratch" a program for teaching dyslexic children, after working as a special education teacher in the Pittsfield Public Schools, and wrote a book on the teaching techniques that she developed that is still available on Amazon. She also established a website, dyslexia.org, that is currently inactive, according to her friend Mary Talmi of Pittsfield.

"I know people were still calling her" about her dyslexia instructional methods, said Talmi, who helped van den Honert test her teaching theories through a pilot program at Conte Community School in Pittsfield.

"She was probably one of the best teachers I ever met," Talmi said. "She dedicated her life to solving issues around dyslexia and helping children and adults overcome their reading challenges ... She was such a fighter for those children."

Outspoken critic

Van den Honert, who attended weekly ballet classes at the Albany-Berkshire Ballet into her 70s, once appeared in one of the company's productions, according to Talmi. She conducted dog obedience training classes at the Girls Club in Pittsfield during the early 1950s. But she was also known for not being afraid to publicly express her opinion on any number of subjects.

Those opinions were frequently expressed in the pages of The Berkshire Eagle, where van den Honert wrote several opinion pieces. She was also a frequent contributor to the Letters to the Editors section, wrote a series of stories titled "Poverty in Pittsfield" during the 1960s — she served as a board member of the local anti-poverty organization Action for Opportunity — and even reviewed books.

Her written comments were often colorful. In 1969, she began a review of a book titled, "Education and Ecstasy" by writing, "Somebody should really brain the gent who named this book." In 1984, she wrote "it is perfectly possible to run backward ... Pittsfield should know" in a letter to the editor regarding the city's then downtown redevelopment efforts.

In another letter in 1976, van den Honert wrote "The Eagle stinks" after the newspaper published a series of articles that referred to a state political candidate as "an avowed lesbian." She called the reference "a display of tasteless, tacky, yellow journalism" before signing the letter, "Dorothy van den Honert, (avowed heterosexual)."

"She was feisty to the end," Searles said. "She never stopped. ... She had causes and she was very much a fighter."

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"Dorothy wrote often on education as that was her specialty and passion," said Bill Everhart, The Eagle's Editorial Page Editor. "But she also wrote about her family, memories of Pittsfield, national politics and whatever moved her to take pen to paper — and eventually the keyboard when she moved online.

"She had a distinctive free-form style. Whatever she wrote was sure to include witty asides, and dry-as-a-bone humor."

In June 1988, van den Honert upstaged Williams College professor John Drew when he knelt on the steps of Pittsfield City Hall while running for political office to express his opposition to then-Mayor Anne Wojtkowski's proposal for an eastern route for the proposed Route 7 bypass from the Massachusetts Turnpike to Pittsfield. Wojtkowski had floated her proposal as an alternative to the western route that had already been proposed. A highly controversial issue, the bypass was never built.

"When the candidate reached the point in the speech where he dropped to his knees and made a 'public plea' to Wojtkowski — clenching his hands and facing the general direction of her office — van den Honert knelt next to him and held a sign saying 'No Western Bypass,'" The Eagle reported. "Drew, still on his knees, shuffled to move away from van den Honert, but she shuffled over and remained close to him while an Eagle photographer clicked away." A photo of both van den Honert and Drew kneeling on the front steps of City Hall accompanied the story that was published in The Eagle the next day.

"I think Dorothy had a unique ability to take positions that were not necessarily in the mainstream," said former Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto, who served on the School Committee with van den Honert. "She showed an incredible amount of courage making sure all sides of an issue were addressed. From that I think the School Department and system benefited tremendously."

Daughter of a writer

Born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1924, van den Honert was one of two daughters of the late Gerald White Johnson, who in a 75-year career wrote more than 40 books, including biographies, histories, novels and two well-known children's series on American history and government. A friend of the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, who worked for newspapers in both North Carolina and Maryland, Johnson "served as one of the the most eloquent spokespersons for America's adversary culture in the 20th century," according to a review of his biography, "Gerald William Johnson: From Southern Liberal to National Conscience" on books.google.com.

In his writings, Johnson, who died in 1980, denounced the Ku Klux Klan, defended President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, criticized Sen.Joseph McCarthy, and battled with the Republican Party during President Dwight Eisenhower's two terms.

"He was, to borrow, his phrase, 'a disturber of the peace,'" according to the review.

Van den Honert grew up in Baltimore, where her father was a journalist for city's Evening Sun newspaper, and graduated from Vassar College with a degree in mathematics in 1945. According to Searles, she met her husband while working in a plastics laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Leonard van den Honert attended Johns Hopkins while on a fellowship from a technical university in the Netherlands where he was born. The van den Honerts were married on June 12, 1948. The couple had five children. Lenoard van den Honert died in 1997.

After her eldest child went to college in 1968, van den Honert began working as a substitute teacher in the Pittsfield public schools and then spent 11 years as a special education instructor at the then Crosby Junior High School. She left that position after complaining about the restrictions in the state's special education law.

In a 1979 article in The Eagle, van den Honert referred to the city's special education program as "cruel" because she said the dyslexic children had a hard time learning when they were mixed in with students who had other disabilities.

Funeral arrangements for van den Honert are being handled by French & Rising Funeral Home in Goffstown, N.H.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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