Harriet Burns, 89, was pioneering educator

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2009 - 8:10 PM

The leader in special education turned personal hardship into professional service to others.

When Harriet Burns' husband, Jim, died of heart disease in 1956, the mother of five children under the age of 12 made a plan. She would return to the University of Minnesota, earn her teaching license and begin working with children.

It's unlikely the plan included becoming a pioneer in teaching children with learning disabilities and emotional problems -- or for designing the way teachers would work with special-needs students.

But that is exactly what happened, said Burns' son David, of Woodbury. "She loved kids, and really, that's what it's all about," he said.

Harriet Burns died July 3, surrounded by her children. She was 89.

After her husband's death, Burns went to work as a classroom teacher at Kenny Elementary School in Minneapolis. It was there that one of her third-grade students was diagnosed with leukemia, family members said. The girl died during the school year, but in the time before her death, Burns helped her have as normal a school experience as possible.

A few years later, in the early 1960s, Burns was chosen to participate in a pioneering research project of the Minneapolis schools and Kenny Institute of Neurology, developing one of the first school programs to serve the needs of kids with learning and emotional and behavioral disabilities. Burns grew with the program to become director of the Madison School program and director of special education for the Minneapolis public schools.

"She was one of the first ever to understand that maybe the disruptive kids, the kids who didn't fit into the regular school, had some larger issues," David Burns said. "The program took off and really began filling what had been an unmet need. And she just kind of grew with the whole thing."

In 1973, Burns was invited to the then-College of St. Thomas to create master's degree programs to train teachers to work with emotionally troubled and learning-disabled students. She would become the first woman to become a full professor at the school, her family said. She retired from the university in 1989 and, in 2005, was named professor emeritus.

She went on to advise governors and serve on the boards of multiple organizations, including the Minnesota Association for Children with Learning Disabilities and the St. Paul Council on Special Education.

Harriet Moriarty was born in Shakopee. She earned her bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

David Burns said Harriet, the fourth of five children, was a tomboy growing up and excelled at tennis. His mother had high standards, he said, and didn't easily accept excuses.

While he was a student at St. Thomas, David Burns remembers that his mother would often see a student of hers and admonish him or her to "get their act together."

"Then, years later, you would find letters from these same students, thanking her for being such a help to them," David said. "Wouldn't you like to be the kind of person that somebody writes that sort of letter to years later?"

In addition to her son David, she is survived by another son, Terrance of Richmond, Va.; two daughters, Peggy Rasmussen of Golden Valley and Barbara Fitzgerald of Poway, Calif.; a brother, Louis Moriarty of Wayzata, a sister, Mary Galvani of New York City; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A son, Joseph, preceded her in death.

Burns' funeral will be held Thursday at the chapel at the University of St. Thomas.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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