Mary Frances Sweeney, a retired Baltimore County special education teacher, died of congestive heart failure Sunday at the Charlestown Retirement Community where she had lived for the last four years. She was 87.
She was born and raised Mary Kelly on a farm in Oxford, Iowa. She began her college studies at Ottumwa Heights College. In 1940, she earned a bachelor's degree in art education from the University of Iowa. She earned a master's degree in special education and art in 1968 from what is now Towson University.
While at the University of Iowa, she studied under Grant Wood, the American artist best-known for his painting American Gothic.
"An assistant would teach the class, but he would come in and critique their work. She was proud for the rest of her life for having studied with the famous artist," said a daughter, Maureen Sweeney Smith of Catonsville.
She began her teaching career in a one-room school in Johnson City, Iowa, and later taught art education and painting at St. Mary of the Springs College in Columbus, Ohio.
In 1941, she married Joseph A. Sweeney, who was later an executive at Joseph Seagram & Sons in Relay. He died in 2001.
The couple settled in Relay in 1946, and after raising her seven children, Mrs. Sweeney returned to teaching in 1959 when she joined the faculty of Arundel Junior High School.
She subsequently taught art at Gray Manor Elementary in Dundalk and Catonsville Elementary School during the 1960s.
In 1968, she began teaching special education students at Rolling Road School, a Baltimore County special education school,where she remained until retiring in 1980.
"In her mind, there was no child too mentally or physically disabled to enjoy art. And she found ways that each child could express their creativity," said a son, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney of Ellicott City.
"She also used her warmth, enthusiasm and Irish humor to bring even the most withdrawn child into the magical world she created for them," he said.
Mrs. Sweeney enjoyed providing child care for family and neighbors, and entertained her young charges with art lessons, family members said.
She was a 50-year parishioner of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge.
A Mass of Christian burial was offered Wednesday at the Catonsville retirement community.
Survivors also include three other sons, Daniel J. Sweeney of Indianapolis, Ind., Paul R. Sweeney of Rocky Gorge, Howard County, and Charles R. Sweeney of Hanover, Pa.; two other daughters, Kathleen A. Dougherty of Fulton, Howard County, and Sharon M. Keech of Catonsville; a sister, Vera Kessler of Davenport, Iowa; and 13 grandchildren. A daughter, Anne Sweeney, and two sons, Joseph Sweeney and John Sweeney, predeceased her.