Mary Lee Enfield was a compassionate teacher of children with learning disabilities who prompted the state of Minnesota to become one of the first in the nation to mandate special services in public schools for students with dyslexia.
Enfield died on Sept. 30 at age 85.
Friends said her absence is being felt during the holidays, because she penned Christmas letters that moved beyond life events and explored issues of social justice. Once, she opined on the theft of lilies outside her lake cottage.
“Her Christmas letters always had a theme,” said longtime roommate Sandra Anderson. “We’re missing them.”
Enfield is remembered for a career that started as a teacher at Red Lake Indian Reservation and continued at Bloomington Public Schools. In her letters, she recalled humorous moments — like when students in Red Lake were washing a mop head to use as a wig in a play and accidentally caused flooding — but also frustrations when students’ reading problems weren’t addressed.
“Nowadays we know more about dyslexia, but in those days?” said Sonia Anderson, who along with her sister, Sandra, was a close friend to Enfield. The diagnostic term might have been coined in 1887, but Sonia Anderson said it wasn’t applied much in schools.
As an assistant principal and coordinator of special learning disabilities, Enfield helped the Bloomington schools enact standards for teaching students with dyslexia — a condition by which letters on a page can appear jumbled or illegible — and other reading problems.
She then helped lobby for a state mandate for special services for these students, which was an inspiration for the federal mandate that was enacted in 1975.
“Remedial reading [until then] was just the same as what you got in the classroom — only more of it,” said Dru Sweetser, a colleague with Enfield in the Minnesota Association for Children with Learning Disabilities.
Enfield’s doctoral thesis in 1976 on multisensory learning led her to co-found Project Read, a tutorial for teaching students with dyslexia through touch and sound as well as words on the page. Districts nationwide consulted with her or adopted the approach in everyday classrooms, reducing the need to refer students for special education.
Her academic honors include serving as president of the Minnesota Council for Exceptional Children and as a regent to Concordia College in Moorhead. She was named Minnesota’s special educator of the year in 1972.
Through her business success, Enfield supported charities and donated to the Children’s Theatre Company and the Minnesota Orchestra. She financed the preservation of her childhood church building and the construction of a replacement. Sonia Anderson said she helped nieces and nephews pay for college. “She was so generous to many,” she said.
Sandra Anderson recalled humorous adventures with Enfield. They traveled to Colorado to camp, only to learn that nobody knew how to put up a tent. They fished in a canoe in Osage, where Enfield hooked her instead of a fish. They planted 1,000 trees on her family’s farm near Park Rapids, only to have gophers dig them up.
There were tougher times. Later in life, Enfield suffered persistent lymphedema — severe swelling in the legs — and Sandra Anderson said she bandaged them daily. Enfield died following heart problems and prolonged dialysis.
Enfield believed in a philosophy coined by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone — “we all do better when we all do better.” Tales from former students suggest that is true.
“So many students have come back,” Sandra Anderson said, “and said how much they gained from her knowledge.”