Longtime Madison educator and state official Marlene Cummings, who spent the early part of her career teaching children in a nearly all-white city about race, died May 29 from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. She was 84.
From 1974 to 1979, Cummings wrote a column for the Wisconsin State Journal, “Dear Mrs. Cummings,” to answer questions from young people about racial and cultural differences.
Cummings used puppets and games in the late 1960s and 1970s to educate children in Madison schools and also to host a live, weekly show on WISC-TV, “Very Important People,” aimed at helping 5- to 10-year-olds understand differences and overcome prejudice. She hosted another children’s show on WHA-TV.
“She was a very intelligent person, very smart,” said former husband Nelson Cummings, who lives on Odana Road, in the home he bought with Marlene in 1968 and where they raised their four sons. “She did things that most people couldn’t do because of her intellect.”
He said she became a specialist for the Madison School District without an apprenticeship. “She was a consultant in the human relations department, working with elementary and middle schools and helping teachers to understand some of the situations that we’re going through today.”
In an anthology published by the Madison School District in 1969, Cummings collected dozens of thank-you notes from students along with their letters, poems and stories. Some letters referenced her scientific explanation of melanin and the physiology of color.
The ages of the students ranged from 9 to 13 and all but two were white, she wrote. “They are from similar backgrounds in that there has been very little contact on a person-to-person basis with black people.”
“Dear Mrs. Cummings,” one letter read, “I learned a great deal from the talk which you gave us. I was already for the black people, but from the talk which you gave us, I am for them even more. I hope to encourage small children so that they do not get the wrong idea about black people. Maybe even some grown-ups could be encouraged.”
Another student wrote: “Dear Mrs. Cummings, thank you for coming to our school and talking to us. It was the best two hours I have ever had. It was very interesting. I think you brought out a point that people should think about. Thank you again.”
Cummings, who was trained as a nurse, wrote in the anthology that reading through the letters provided a “great many reasons why this particular kind of dialogue is necessary. Children are thinking, asking questions, and often forming their own answers. Can they not help but be interested with the current national emphasis on the issues?”
In a 1979 profile in The New York Times, Cummings told a reporter that “Prejudice is ignorance. It is a destructive human behavior, and it is a learned trait. I feel it’s crucial that children have knowledge about prejudice in order to prevent other people’s negative behavior from hurting them. Children who are continually told they are ugly or odd or dumb will believe it. So they often withdraw and don’t achieve academically or socially. As adults, their negative self concepts may lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, criminal actions and even suicide.”
When she retired as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing in 2001 after 14 years, she had the distinction of being the longest-serving cabinet secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson. She was appointed to the post when Thompson was elected in 1986.
Before that, Cummings was a Special Advisor for Women’s Initiatives for another Republican governor, Lee Dreyfus.
According to her son, Jeff Cummings, a federal magistrate judge in Chicago, his mother ran for state treasurer in a Republican primary in the early 1980s. She also took flying lessons.
Since 2008, Cummings had lived in an assisted-living facility near Jeff and his family. “The staff who worked there really loved her,” he said.
His mother, he said, “had an incredibly big heart, was very optimistic, very creative and a person with a wide variety of interests and skills.”
He called her a “people person” who “loved people of all types.” She was ahead of her time with her curriculum, or what is now called “diversity training,” he said.
Jeff Cummings, known to his family and childhood friends as “Chip,” said his mother taught young people about individual differences, “whether it be of a different race or ethnicity or persons with disabilities, whether they’re blind or perhaps missing a limb.”
In 2006, then-State Journal columnist Bill Wineke recalled a conversation he had with Cummings in 1974. “I used to think that the children discriminated against were blacks or (Asians),” she told Wineke. “But do you know what we’ve discovered? The child who is the most discriminated against is the fat child.”
Nelson Cummings said he and Marlene divorced in the late 1980s after the last of their sons went off to college. As a political independent, Nelson said, he had trouble going to political events with Marlene.
“I was very proud of my wife,” he said. “And I wanted her to have the opportunity to do things that she was interested in doing and qualified to do.”
Marlene is survived by a daughter, Carol Hendrix, from a previous relationship, and sons Stephen, Jeffrey, Timothy and Patrick. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
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