'She was like the heart of the school': Margaret Downing remembered for impact on Berkshire education

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PITTSFIELD Margaret E. "Peg" Downing, a distinguished educator who one person called "the heart" of the former St. Joseph Central High School, died Friday following a brief illness. She was 71.

Downing served in various capacities at St. Joseph's for 37 years before retiring in 2007. Following a brief stint teaching at Taconic High School, she joined St. Joseph's in 1971. Downing taught history, economics and philosophy, then served as the school's dean of discipline and guidance director before serving a decade as school principal.

She also coached the girls' basketball team. St. Joseph's was closed by the Diocese of Springfield in 2016.

"I think for many years she was there she was like the heart of the school," said the Rev. Michael Shershanovich, the pastor of St. Joseph's Parish. "She was a champion of the school. More importantly the students with needs could expect her to be there for them.

"I think she affected the lives of many students who turned to her in confidence. She did more for the students than anyone will ever know."

Downing retired from St. Joseph's 13 years ago during the Diocese of Springfield's then ongoing reorganization of the Catholic Schools of Pittsfield, which have all since been closed. The diocese offered her a job in development, but she turned it down.

"I'm well aware of my abilities," Downing told The Eagle at the time. "But as far as running a development office, I don't have the skills."

Instead, Downing continued her career as an educator but outside of the Berkshires. She served as principal of Catherine McAuley High School in Portland, Maine, then served one year as the principal of Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic school in Lawrence, during the 2013-14 academic year.

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School President Sister Maryalyce Gilfeather said Downing took the job when she stopped in Lawrence on her way back to Pittsfield from Maine. She was hired on the spot.

Downing joined the school following a difficult year in which the replacement for the school's then longtime principal was not a good fit and resigned after one year.

"She was a remarkable woman," Gilfeather said. "Through her kindness and her knowledge of education she was able to calm everything down. She had such a positive impact on the community when she was here."

At Notre Dame, Downing was known for the words of advice that she dispensed, sayings that the school referred to as "Pegisms," according to Gilfeather.

"We still remember them," Gilfeather said.

Born in Pittsfield Nov. 10, 1948, Downing graduated from St,. Joseph's in 1966 and Berkshire Community College in 1968, before receiving her baccalaureate degree at Trinity College in Burlington, Vt., in 1970. She later served as president of the Board of Trustees at Trinity. Founded in 1925 as New England's second Catholic women's college, Trinity closed in 2000 due to financial constraints.

Her family is well-known for their service in the community. One of her brothers, the late Gerard D. Downing, served as Berkshire District Attorney for 13 years until his death in 2003. Another brother, John F. Downing, is the founder of the Soldier On veterans organization, which operates facilities in Pittsfield and Leeds. Her nephew, Benjamin B. Downing, represented Berkshire County as state senator from 2007 to 2016.

Downing is survived by three brothers, her sister-in-law, and numerous nieces, nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews.

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


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