Dr. Thomas Francis Hehir

(February 2, 1950 – June 22, 2022)

Dr. Thomas Francis Hehir died on June 22nd from ALS at the age of 72. The special education expert and professor was a leading advocate for the rights of the disabled.

Tom was born on February 2, 1950, in Worcester, Massachusetts, into a large and loving extended family. He was the middle of three brothers born to Elizabeth (née Hussey) and Leo Hehir.

After being educated in the Worcester Public School system, Tom attended The College of the Holy Cross. While there, Tom began volunteering to help kids with intellectual disabilities. After graduating from college in 1972, Tom attended Syracuse University where he received a graduate fellowship and earned a Master’s degree.

From 1973 to 1987, Tom worked as a teacher and as an administrator focusing on special
education. This included his work with the Boston Public Schools, where he was named
Director of Special Education for the entire district.

From 1987 to 1990, Tom returned to graduate school earning his Ed.D at Harvard in
Administration and Social Policy. Tom was awarded for his work with a Dissertation Of The Year Award from the American Education Research Association.

In 1990, Tom moved to Chicago where he served as associate superintendent, primarily
working on issues of special education, as well as gifted and talented programming, and
all student support services. During his tenure in Chicago, the district was able to reach a much higher level of compliance with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

In 1993 Tom was asked by the Clinton administration to join the US Department of
Education. Tom was appointed to serve as director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), where he served from 1993 to 1999. He helped oversee the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997, which ensured children with special needs would gain access to a general curriculum and high quality education programs.

At the end of the Clinton presidency, Tom returned to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to teach on school leadership and federal policy, as well as study and write about special education in the reform movement, due process, and least restrictive environment issues. Throughout his 19 years, during which he was named the Silvana and Christopher Pascucci Professor of Practice in Learning Differences, Tom instructed thousands of Harvard graduates — teachers, principals, superintendents, and policymakers — on the importance of implementing meaningful inclusive education. Tom was beloved by his students and remained close with many of them after retirement.

Throughout a storied career, Tom Hehir made an incalculable impact on the life of students with disabilities, their parents, and the educators who serve them. For his work, he received countless awards and recognition including the Martha H. Ziegler Founder’s Award. The Ziegler award is given to individuals who have had a tremendous impact in improving the quality of life or children and students with special needs. Tom also was a dedicated trustee for Perkins School for the Blind.

In his personal life, Tom loved being with people and being active. Tom developed close
relationships wherever he went and enjoyed spending time with friends and his large extended family. He split time between Boston and Maine and loved to garden, ski, and hike with his dogs. Ever a teacher, Tom was proud that he taught generations of Hehir’s how to ski.

Tom was also a proud gay man, coming out in 1976, becoming an openly gay appointee in the
Clinton administration, and getting married to his husband, Danny, in 2022. Tom played an
active role in Boston’s gay community and was a leading member of the Boston Gay and
Lesbian School Workers and its political activism beginning in the 1970’s. Later in life, Tom found an accepting community among the congregation of Old South Church.

In the fall of 2020, Tom was diagnosed with ALS. Like everything else he did in life, Tom
approached his disease with vigor – researching the disease, getting involved in clinical trials, and becoming part of the ALS community. After a career of advocating on behalf of those with disabilities, Tom became disabled, himself. He admirably confronted the disease as he progressively lost his mobility and speech. However, Tom never lost his ability to make those around him feel special and loved.

Tom is survived by his husband, Daniel Morabito, and his brothers, Richard (Marilyn Shelleman) and Michael (Susan). He is also survived by his nieces and nephews: Theresa; Daniel (Susan); David (Amanda Shillingford); Thomas (Lindsey Stuart); and Kristin (David Chao). Further, Tom leaves behind cousins whom he considers siblings: Sally St. John (David), Frances Carrigan (William), Martha Wally (Robert), Joanne Frew (Gerard), and Patricia Hackett (John). Finally, he is survived by many loving cousins and grand nieces and nephews.

The family is planning a Memorial Service Tuesday June 28th at 1:00PM. The service will be held at Old South Church located at 645 Boylston St., Boston. For those who cannot attend, the service will be streamed (https://vimeo.com/event/2236610).

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a contribution to one of the organizations Tom supported including: MGH’s Healey Center for ALS, Compassionate Care ALS, and Perkins School for the Blind.


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14 Condolences

  1. Marty Mittnacht, former MA State Director for Special Ed. on June 25, 2022 at 10:32 am

    Tom was always special. I remember him greeting people with sincere warmth every time. He seemed to always take the high road. He will be greatly missed. I enjoyed working with him on Massachusetts’ deep dive into special education data. His work there assisted in driving inclusion then and still.

  2. Gary Orfield on June 25, 2022 at 3:27 pm

    Tom Hehir was a friend and a very treasured colleague during my years on the Harvard HGSE faculty. Wise, passionate about justice, kind, experienced in government and law, it was always a pleasure to be with Tom. When we did our national conference on civil rights and special education and the book, RACIAL INEQUITY IN SPECIAL EDUCATION, we learned from Tom who gave very good advice. A truly good man, without pretentions, with many who deeply admired his scholarship and leadership. A man with a true mission in his life.

  3. Shannon on June 27, 2022 at 11:56 am

    I’m so sad to hear that Tom has passed away. I still frequently think back to what he taught me in his course on disability studies and special education. He always made a point to make the class as inclusive as possible, passing a microphone around the large room so everyone could hear the discussion. I believe that a classmate who was hard of hearing said that that that was the first time a professor had done something like that in all the classes she had taken thus far. It was a simple gesture that made a significant difference for everyone in the room. It’s representative of the many ways he touched our lives. I left the class knowing that I wanted to help make the world a more accessible place. I think I speak for me and my classmates when I say he’s left a big impact on our lives.

  4. Cynthia Stead on June 27, 2022 at 6:11 pm

    Tom and I met as trustees at the Perkins but we grew up in Worcester 2 years apart – but different neighborhoods. I remember he was very impressed I had once worked for the City Manager Mr. McGrath! We also spent time in Maine and swapped storied about that too.

    Tim was a shrewd and caring board member. His years as an educator informed his ability to be the wise and intelligent leader at the school. He was, to put it simply, a lovely gentleman and he will be genuinely missed and mourned.

  5. Patricia Albjerg Graham on June 27, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    Tom was one of my favorite colleagues at the Harvard Ed School both as a student and as a faculty member. As many have recognized, he had a remarkable ability to be aware of others, their strengths and their needs. He did all he could to accommodate his actions to them.
    My favorite memory of Tom is on his bicycle heading down Mass Ave in Cambridge at Putnam St to his glorious home and garden in the South End where he would prepare a fine dinner for his friends and himself. Then he was joyous.
    Pat Graham

  6. Neil Miller on June 27, 2022 at 7:58 pm

    Tom was a great educator and a great human being. He passed away far too soon. We will all miss him.

  7. David O'Malley on June 27, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    Dear Friends and Family of Tom, especially to Daniel his husband, and his brothers, Richard and Michael,
    I offer my sincere condolences in the loss of your beloved.
    I never had the privilege of meeting Tom in person, as far as I know. Tom attended Old South Church in Boston where I am also a member. Today I received word through the church email network of Tom’s death. And as a fellow educator, I learned more about his extraordinary life of service and generous spirit.

    There is a lovely video of him at the 2018 orientation for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
    It captures in a short time much of what any of us would want/deserve in a friend, colleague and teacher.
    I was inspired in watching him to be a better colleague and teacher for my students.
    May Tom’s memory be for a blessing to you and may his kind and strong spirit continue with good purpose.
    Wishing you comfort, peace and strength,
    David O’Malley

  8. John Wadlington and Anna Wadlington on June 28, 2022 at 6:50 pm

    Oh gosh, so sorry to hear this. Tom was so good to me when I first moved back to Boston. He and his family welcomed me and my daughter, Anna to their home in Worcester every Christmas because I couldn’t make it home to my own family. Many thanks for all the kindnesses. Tom had a life well-lived. His accomplishments humble me. What a loss!

  9. Romina G Carrillo on June 29, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    I am so sorry to hear this news. My sincerest condolences to Daniel, Tom’s husband and to Tom’s family. Tom was a HGSE classmate back in 1987-1988 and became a lifelong friend. I remember his tenacious spirit, his hearty and generous laughter and his sparkling, mischievous eyes. No matter how busy he was, he always asked about how I was doing and about my family. What a great loss for us all.
    May his kind spirit and generous soul live on in us.

  10. Kevin McCluskey on June 29, 2022 at 5:43 pm

    So sad to hear that we have lost one of the nicest and smartest people I have ever known.
    I had the pleasure of working with Tom when I served as a member of the Boston School Committee in the ’80’s, and I so much appreciated his wise counsel and warm friendship – always a bright light in often challenging times.
    It was rewarding to reconnect with Tom during our respective returns to Harvard, and it was especially gratifying to hear from both Tom and my daughter Kate how much they enjoyed their work together at HGSE. Tom would surely flash that unique cheshire cat smile to know that Kate is now the Academic Director at New York City’s Quad Prep, earnestly serving 2e students.
    Along with all of you, Kate and I both mourn this terrible loss. Be well.

  11. James M. Hayes S.J. on July 4, 2022 at 11:10 am

    Tom was my classmate at Holy Cross. Because he was a day student, I did not know him well. He had a uncle who was a Jesuit priest, Fr. Tom Hussey S.J. I volunteered with Fr. Tom as a Jesuit novice and admired him greatly. I am sure his mother named him after her brother. I saw Tom at Fr. Tom’s funeral. I had heard of Tom’s exceptional reputation as an educator, as a public servant, and as a professor. I was very proud of him. When I received the word that Tom had ALS I added him to my prayer list. At our 50th reunion this past June, I saw another classmate, Matt Hogan, who also suffers from ALS. I asked Matt if he had an update on Tom and he said that Tom was not doing well. I am glad that his suffering is over. I rejoice in his victory of eternal life. I extend my prayerful solidarity to his husband, his siblings, his nephews and nieces, his esteemed colleagues, and his fellow member of Old South Church. I am glad he found a spiritual home. I am saddened by our Church’s inhospitable treatment of gay people. May he Rest In Peace and may his good work continue to bear fruit in his students and colleagues.

  12. Fred Brand on July 5, 2022 at 8:11 am

    So sad to hear of Tom’s passing. We were friends during our time at Holy Cross and it was his suggestion that I try volunteering at a weekly social club for teens and young adults with developmental disabilities that was not only fun and fulfilling but that also led me to a long and wonderful career serving people with disabilities and other special needs. Thanks, Tom, for your suggestion that was so transformational for me and for all the amazing ways that you made a difference in the lives of so many others!

  13. Bob Hewitt on July 5, 2022 at 9:02 am

    Tom, or “Tippy” as I knew him at Holy Cross, was a great guy. He stood out as a person of consequence in college….and that’s exactly how he led his life. Not too shabby of a legacy.

  14. Edward Friedlander on October 10, 2023 at 11:36 am

    I am deeply saddened with Tom’s passing. I worked with Tom In Chicago. I was the state monitor over Chicago’s special election services. Tom was very interested in improving Chicago’s special education system. Never defensive. Always interested in fixing the problem. Rest in peace my friend

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