Mary Kennedy-Peretti, at 92; an inspirational mother and schoolteacher
Mary Kennedy-Peretti was a mother nine times over, a mom for some 30 years when she resumed a classroom career that had come to a halt in the late-1940s, when the rules in many a school district prohibited women who were married or mothers from teaching.
“She stayed home and raised us, but when my brother Jim hit middle school, she wanted to go back to work,” said her oldest child, Kathy Becker. “She had more to give, and that’s when she went back and got her master’s degree.”
And though she had much to give, even more would be asked of Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti, who along with teaching would go on to volunteer extensively and work for her sister’s tour company, all while being an inspirational mother who offered strength to her family as her first husband and two sons were diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Just six weeks after the death of her second husband, Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti died Saturday at the age of 92. A resident of Belmont, she had been injured in falls earlier this year.
Originally a kindergarten teacher in 1948, she taught middle school in Quincy upon resuming her career in the early 1980s.
Her first husband, Christopher F. Kennedy, was an administrator at Northeastern University at the time. He also was the Quincy School Committee vice chairman when budget pressures led the panel to cut back on the number of teachers.
That prompted Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti to reinvent herself as an educator yet again.
“Instead of her saying, ‘Well, I can use my political pull,’ she went back to school,” said her son Jake Kennedy, a cofounder of the Christmas in the City charity. “She knew they wouldn’t lay off special education teachers, because they needed them.”
Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti, who earned her master’s from Eastern Nazarene College, began teaching special education in Quincy, where her own experience and patience as a mother in an expansive household translated into a calming classroom presence.
“She never would get mad at the parents, never would get mad at the kids,” said Jake, who lives in Salem, N.H. “She brought out the best in the kids in such a great way.”
And that, her children recalled, was what she did with everyone in her life.
While raising eight children — a ninth child, Margaret, died in infancy — Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti often found herself addressing a host of competing needs.
“Everyone was hungry for attention, so it was challenging for her,” said Kathy, who lives in Newburyport.
“Yet talking with all the family members now, she did something spectacular because we all truly consider one another best friends and rely on each other,” Kathy added.
Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti and her husband also encouraged their children to cultivate empathy, including for neighborhood children with whom they initially might not be friends.
“So we started reaching out to other kids at a very young age, because they might not be as fortunate as us,” Jake said.
Such childhood experiences formed a foundation for social service in adulthood for Jake. Christmas in the City, a nonprofit, works through a variety of programs to help those living without homes or in poverty — particularly at Christmas and Thanksgiving.
His brother Richard Kennedy, meanwhile, is president of The Angel Fund for ALS Research. He also is the third member of the family to be diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Their father, Christopher Kennedy, died of ALS in 1989 at 66. He had taught math and had served as a dean and as vice president for administration at Northeastern, before being diagnosed after retiring. Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti had retired from teaching at about the same time.
“He had really been frugal and put money aside so that he and my mom could enjoy retirement,” Kathy said. “It was bitterly ironic that just within months of his retirement, he became symptomatic.”
Less than eight years after the death of his father, James Kennedy — the youngest of the siblings — died of ALS at 31.
Rich Kennedy, who lives in Cohasset, had helped the nonprofit Angel Fund raise millions for ALS research before he was diagnosed and had launched a fund-raising run in honor of his brother Jimmy 22 years ago. Rich also had run the Boston Marathon 31 times and was on a training run for his 32nd when he felt what he recognized were ALS symptoms.
For Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti, the death of an infant child, the ALS deaths of her husband and youngest child, and yet another son’s diagnosis in her final years were more than most are asked to bear.
“She’s been through a lot,” Kathy said. “It was challenging, it was hard, it was stressful, but she had a great Catholic faith. She was a strong woman.”
Mary Devine was born Nov. 12, 1926, and spent her early years in Dorchester. She and her identical twin, Margaret, were among 11 children — three of whom their parents adopted from inner-city families after the Devines moved to Scituate.
Her mother, Margaret Roche, was a millworker in Lawrence who met her father, John Devine, when Margaret was part of the historic Bread and Roses strike in 1912 and John was a Pinkerton detective. He later was a Boston Police sergeant.
Mary went to Boston Teachers College, where one day she met Christopher Kennedy, a son of the school’s president. When they married in 1949, she had to stop teaching kindergarten.
Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti, who had also worked for the Execu-Tours firm founded by her sister Ellen McKenney Fahey, had been the last survivor of her own siblings — two of whom had 10 children each. Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti and her twin, Peg, had 19 children between the two of them.
In 1996, seven years after Mary’s husband, Christopher, died, she married Robert A. Peretti of Belmont, who ran his family’s L.J. Peretti tobacco business in downtown Boston. As older widowers, they thought they’d only enjoy a few years together. Instead, they had 23. Mr. Peretti died June 28, at 98.
In addition to her daughter Kathy and sons Jake and Rich, Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti leaves two other daughters, Judy Higgins of Newburyport and Mary Kate Kennedy of Burlington, Vt.; two other sons, Christopher Kennedy Jr. of Braintree and Robert Kennedy of Weymouth; five stepchildren, Robert Peretti Jr. of Keene, N.H., Pamela Roberts of Wallingford, Vt., Deborah Peretti of Sedona, Ariz., Jean McKenney of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and MaryLu Klum of Hollis, N.H.; 17 grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Joseph Church in Belmont. Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti will be buried in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, in the family plot with her first husband, Christopher, her son James, and her daughter Margaret.
Among Mrs. Kennedy-Peretti’s children and grandchildren, “something happened that we all understood: family first, the importance of giving back. I think we’re already beginning to see that in our children. It’s a beautiful legacy,” Kathy said.
“We are grownups doing good things, trying our best. And our children — her grandchildren — are also doing the right thing. That’s a lovely legacy going forward.”