A Celebration of Service, Mary Kloppenberg Retires After 27 Years as Executive Director of the Wellesley College Children's Center

July 13, 2016

More than 200 people gathered at the Wellesley Community Children’s Center in late May to celebrate the work and impact of executive director Mary Kloppenberg, who retired after 27 years of service. Well-wishers included Wellesley faculty, staff members, and students, as well as current WCCC students and alums, many of whom now have children of their own.

"Mary remembered everyone and was so delighted to see them!" said Sally Theran, associate professor of psychology. Both of Theran's children attended the WCCC.

"When my older daughter, now 10, heard that Mary was retiring, she said, 'But that's so sad—she’s so wonderful,'" said Theran. Many attendees echoed that assessment of Kloppenberg, who moved to Wellesley in 1980, after teaching at the Stanford University Children’s Center and founding and directing its Infant Center. 

"I rarely saw Mary in her office. She was always in the hallway, speaking with us about the Center, about new research on child development, or something amazing one of our children had done that day," said Stacie Goddard, Jane Bishop '51 Associate Professor of Political Science. "Mary knew how to engage toddlers and preschoolers, and she always put their needs and interests first, no matter how busy she was."

Often that meant asking about the stuffed animal a child had brought to school that day or remarking on how hard someone had worked to master the monkey bars on the playground. Kloppenberg frequently sat on the floor of a classroom, reading a story to a child on her lap.

"Children intuitively knew that she cared about them," said Darlene J. Howland, early childhood program director of the WCCC. "She helped to create an environment where all children are valued and allowed to grow and thrive at their own pace."

That environment is child-centered and play-based, with an emphasis on building relationships with children and meeting them on their level, including physically. "Children flourish in the atmosphere created at the Wellesley Community Children's Center," Howland said. "Our early-childhood and after-school programs are full of warmth and excitement about life's discoveries."

Those discoveries happen both inside the school and in the school's big "backyard," as some of the WCCC students think of the Wellesley campus. Teachers can often be seen leading a group around Paramecium Pond, in the greenhouses, or alongside Wellesley students.

Kloppenberg helped the children become their best selves in part by nurturing the school’s teachers, some of whom have worked there for more than 20 years. "That continuity of care and experience is indispensable to a quality early childhood education," said Goddard.

Elizabeth Watson '16, who majored in psychology and minored in teaching and learning studies, began working at the Center part time three years ago. She said Kloppenberg created a welcoming environment for everyone and invested time in her staff. "One of the lessons I learned about child care from Mary is how to connect to children and the importance of including their interests in their learning," said Watson. "By keeping children engaged through their interests, it instills a love and excitement for learning that goes beyond the Center."

Watson said she enjoyed working at the school so much that she recently joined the staff full time, something she did not anticipate when she came to Wellesley as a first-year. "Mary and the Center definitely played a role in my becoming a teacher," she said.

For Kloppenberg, who has worked in childcare for more than 40 years, that kind of praise is heartening. "Kids teach us all to have hope for the future. They help us feel such deep emotions that connect us not only to them, but also to each other," she said.

When asked what she will miss the most, Kloppenberg said, "the relationships formed with children, families, teachers, Wellesley students, and those from the College who support what we do—whether it be those who work to keep the building running or those who make the necessary decisions to support the needs of College faculty and staff and the larger community. I think how we care about and treat each other is a measure of our society."