Forty years ago, parents of babies with Down syndrome were often advised to put them in an institution.

Then along came John E. Rynders, a University of Minnesota professor and a pioneer in special education who led research that proved that children with Down syndrome and other disabilities could be raised at home and educated in school.

His work also showed the benefits of early education, unlocking the potential of children with Down syndrome.

Rynders died on March 29 of natural causes in his Shoreview home, his family said. He was 82.

Rynders was born in 1933 in Milwaukee; his father worked for the American Red Cross and his mother was a teacher. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of Wisconsin, Stout. There he met his wife — the winner of the 1955 Wisconsin Alice in Dairyland crown (an honor similar to Minnesota’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way).

After earning a degree in industrial arts education, he joined the Army. It was there that he had a pivotal experience working with people with disabilities. He was teaching other soldiers and began to advocate for those with mild cognitive disabilities, said his daughter, Sarah Levinski of Bloomington. He taught them and helped them get their GEDs. “Even in his early formative years, he was advocating for people with disabilities,” she said.

After he was discharged, he returned to school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, earning a doctorate in educational psychology with a concentration in special education.

Much of his groundbreaking research happened at the U of M , where he worked in the educational psychology department training special education teachers. He started a long-term study called Project EDGE (expanding developmental growth through education) on the benefits of early education for children with Down syndrome.

“At that time, if you asked medical professionals what the education benefits would be for children with Down syndrome, you would have more than likely received a pessimistic prediction,” recalled former U President Robert Bruininks, a longtime friend and colleague.

“He was one of the first people to argue that the benefits of intervention early in the lives of kids — even those with diagnosed disabilities — would be beneficial in the long haul. It was a vanguard movement … for students with moderate to severe disabilities.”

Rynders also co-wrote the book “To Give an EDGE.” The guide for new parents of children with Down syndrome offered them hope and helpful educational strategies.

Alan Fletcher was one of those parents. “He was like a father figure for the EDGE families,” said Fletcher, whose daughter Amy was in the program. Like so many of the children with Down syndrome who participated in the EDGE Project, Amy went on to graduate from high school and enter the workforce.

“That’s part of his legacy,” Bruininks said. “Many of those children with Down syndrome went on to … live very productive lives.”

Rynders worked to integrate those with disabilities into all aspects of community life — from drama to art, 4-H programs and outdoor education. “He didn’t want any barriers to be an issue for them to experience some of these things other people might experience,” Levinski said.

In addition to his daughter, Rynders is survived by his wife, Barbara Brown Rynders of Shoreview; another daughter, Beth Rynders of New Brighton; son Paul Rynders of Coon Rapids; sister Jean Driscoll of Orangevale, Calif., and nine grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. on April 16 at North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville, with visitation one hour before the service.