Having attended single-sex schools from childhood through her early college years, M. Burch Tracy Ford became an advocate for letting girls flourish in an academic setting apart from boys during their formative years.
“Coed classrooms are the norm, but the norm does not serve girls well; it needs to be challenged and, ultimately, changed,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1994, a year after becoming head of school at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn.
“Single-sex education is counterculture,” she added, “but it’s good for girls.”
Mrs. Ford, who previously was dean of students at Milton Academy and the residential counselor at the Groton School, was 78 when she died Wednesday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
She and her husband had returned to Greater Boston after she retired in 2008, and most recently she had lived in Concord.
In her early years as head of the Connecticut private school that counted Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis among its alumnae, Mrs. Ford decided Miss Porter’s should invest more resources into making its interscholastic teams more competitive.
By her five-year mark, Division I colleges were recruiting nearly a dozen athletes who were seniors at Miss Porter’s, the Times reported in 1998. Not all coaches and teachers welcomed the new emphasis on athletics.
“There is still a tremendous amount of ambivalence about girls being competitive in our society,” Mrs. Ford told the Times that year.
“But I think for girls to really be successful, in their personal lives, in a business or political context, or any other venue, they have to learn from boys and men about exercising their strength and power, and sports are a perfect vehicle for teaching that,” she added.
Mrs. Ford, who also introduced a compulsory course in ethics, believed in the importance of her initiatives, said her husband, Brian W. Ford, who coached crew at Miss Porter’s while his wife was head of school and formerly had been a successful girls’ crew team coach at Noble and Greenough School.
“She was determined that Miss Porter’s was going to compete on an even level with every school in the country,” he said. “And she felt that having decent, competitive sports was one element of that.”
He added that his wife “had a kind of fierce independent attitude about life.”
Running a private girls’ school was a natural culmination of her background attending girls’ schools as a youth and Trinity College, a women’s school in Washington, D.C., until she left to serve in the Peace Corps, he said.
Although she believed women and men should work together as equals, Mrs. Ford thought that would be difficult to achieve in classrooms during their earlier years.
“Our future needs the best of everyone, men and women,” she said in the 1994 letter to the Times, adding that “temporary separation of the two in school can serve us all in the long run.”
Even in retirement, when she read about research that challenged the notion of single-sex education, Mrs. Ford said her experience as a student and an educator showed the approach had benefits.
In a 2011 letter to the editor of The Boston Globe, when she was president of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, she wrote that “a major value of single-sex schools is freedom from gender stereotypes, not reinforcement of them. What prepares one for a successful adult life is the opportunity to know oneself apart from the traditional cultural imperatives, and to learn how to use one’s strengths and values to become who one really is.”
The third of four siblings, and the oldest daughter, Mary Burch Tracy was born in St. Louis on Nov. 27, 1940. She was 7 when her family moved to Baltimore and settled in the Bolton Hill neighborhood.
Burch was a family name and Mrs. Ford stopped going by Mary once she went to college.
Her father, Daniel O’Connell Tracy Sr., worked for a series of companies. Her mother, Virginia Corrigan Tracy, wrote for the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore News American, interviewing celebrities and often bringing along her children.
“When people used to say that a woman couldn’t be a good mother and have a job at the same time, I thought that was just nonsense,” Mrs. Ford told the Baltimore Sun in 2000 for her mother’s obit. “I thought my mother was much more interesting than any other mother I knew.”
The example Virginia Tracy set inspired Mrs. Ford to have “the power of her convictions about how life should be,” her husband said, “and that’s what made her a great educator.”
Mrs. Ford attended the Notre Dame girls’ prep school in Baltimore and spent a couple of years at Trinity College, where she was elected class president. She then left to work and to spend time in London before joining the Peace Corps in 1967.
In Senegal, in West Africa, she spent two years staffing a social center that provided services such as a kindergarten, adult literacy courses, and prenatal health classes.
While in Senegal she met Brian Ford, another Peace Corps volunteer. They married in 1969 and initially lived in Boston.
“When we married, we had absolutely nothing,” he recalled. “We had no money, we had no place to live, we had no jobs.”
They both found work at what was then Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, where she became director of the volunteer department while finishing her bachelor’s degree at Boston University, attending night classes.
Mrs. Ford went on to graduate from Simmons College with a master’s in social work and from Harvard University with a master’s in education.
Her husband said she spent 10 years at Groton as the first full-time residential counselor, followed by five years as dean of students at Milton Academy before being hired as head of school at Miss Porter’s, where the school library now bears her name. As a former school counselor, “she taught me how to talk about feelings in ways that I found enormously helpful working as a teacher,” her husband said. “She taught me how to listen to kids without judging, without a great deal of expectations. She had a lot of wisdom.”
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Ford leaves their two sons, H. Winfield of Avon, Conn., and Randolph of Glenmont, N.Y.; two brothers, Daniel Tracy Jr. of Baltimore and George Tracy of Sarasota, Fla.; a sister, Virginia Tracy Perkins of Austin, Texas; and two granddaughters.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate her life at 2 p.m. Oct. 31 in Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord.
When Mrs. Ford and her husband first began dating in Africa, “I had a feeling I had met the most competent person I had every met in my life,” he said. “She had – and the rest of her life bore this out — the ability to take on any task and get it done well,” he added. “She was smart. She was strategic. She was also very kind.”