Maria Luisa Rodriguez, 79, psychotherapist for children

April 08, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Maria Luisa Rodriguez, a psychotherapist and a surrogate grandmother to several dozen high school students who fondly called her "Tata," died Friday at her Ruxton home of colon cancer. She was 79.

At age 54, Mrs. Rodriguez earned a master's degree in mental health from the Johns Hopkins University even though she did not have a high school diploma. She had a private practice specializing in autistic children.

"She had at least a dozen cases that no one else was able to help," said her son, Dr. Ignacio Rodriguez. "She was very nurturing to everyone she met, especially children who were handicapped or in pain."

She grew up on a walled Caracas estate, was educated by tutors, and was introduced to her husband-to-be, physician Alejandro Rodriguez, at a family party. The couple were not allowed to be alone until after their wedding.

A college education and a job outside the home were unheard-of among wealthy Venezuelan women of the time, her son said.

In 1943, the couple came to Baltimore, where Dr. Rodriguez was a pediatrics resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The family went back to Venezuela for 11 years, then returned to Baltimore for a second stay at Hopkins in 1956.

But when her husband was ready to go back to Venezuela for good, "my mother intervened," Dr. Ignacio Rodriguez said. "She said she loved Baltimore and she wanted them to stay."

Mrs. Rodriguez volunteered in the child psychiatry department at Hopkins, and took classes at Hopkins' Homewood campus. In 1976, she was in the first class of students to receive master's degrees in mental health from the university.

It was her first diploma, and her son graduated from medical school that year.

"We attended each other's graduations that summer, and I don't know if she was prouder of me or if I was prouder of her," Dr. Ignacio Rodriguez said.

Mrs. Rodriguez had a private practice in psychoanalysis for children in the Roland Park apartment building where she and her husband lived. She retired in 1983.

A doting grandmother, she was known by the nickname "Tata" - a Venezuelan child's version of "Grandma" - at St. Paul's School, where her grandson, Carlos, was a student, and at Maryvale Preparatory School, where her granddaughter, Maria, attended.

When both grandchildren were small, she began the tradition of making gift bags for every student in the youngsters' classes.

She had an assembly line on a pingpong table in her son's basement, where she filled the bags with yo-yos and tops, erasers and candy, and seasonal knickknacks. She delivered them to the students at Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day and other holidays.

"The kids loved every minute of it. They called them `Tata bags,' " said Joseph Ciattei Sr., a mathematics teacher at St. Paul's. "They were just as thrilled when they were seniors as they were when they were younger because they all grew up with it."

Mrs. Rodriguez learned she had colon cancer last year, shortly before her grandson and his 70 classmates graduated from St. Paul's. The students knew she was terminally ill, Dr. Ignacio Rodriguez said.

"When they left for colleges all over the country this year, she got gift bags from at least half of the class," he said. "She received the mascots of many of these universities ... many key rings, pens and pennants. It was just a delight."

A Mass of Christian burial is planned for 11 a.m. today at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St.

She is survived by her husband of 59 years; her son; and her grandchildren, all of Ruxton.

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