November 30, 2005
John Britt, 67; delivered school for disabled into 21st century By Emma Stickgold, Globe Correspondent | December 5, 2005
John Haven Britt dedicated his career to making life better for students at the Massachusetts Hospital School, where some of the state's most severely disabled students learned how to work through their physical challenges.
After serving in the priesthood, Mr. Britt brought state-of-the-art technology to the school's sprawling Canton campus, planned trips to Disney World, and crusaded to keep the school's state funding intact as the school's executive director for more than two decades.
Mr. Britt died at Massachusetts General Hospital on Wednesday from complications of a stroke. He was 67.
'We try to prepare kids with physical challenges to get them ready to live independently," he told the Globe in 1996. 'But our approach is simple: There's no pity here. Pity can be more paralyzing than a bullet."
Instead, he said, the school embraced a philosophy that emphasized being compassionate, training students for the job market, and connecting them to adaptive technology that allowed them to work through their disabilities.
The school opened in 1907, when Dr. Edward H. Bradford, a Boston Brahmin, sought to create a place for youngsters unable to attend school because of their disabilities. The campus featured mostly turn-of-the-century architecture. In the school's early days, most students had tuberculosis, polio, or birth defects.
'When the Salk vaccine eradicated polio, we went from being a post-polio rehabilitation school and hospital to a program that serves the most medically intense kids in the commonwealth," Mr. Britt told the Globe in 1995.
When he arrived at the campus in the 1980s, he decided that the recreation department needed some new life, so he pushed for construction of a large pool and horse trail.
'We want our kids to feel good about themselves, that they are strong even though their strength might be in only one finger, and that they are capable," he said.
Many of the school's students were diagnosed with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, and the facility was equipped to help them learn how to do the everyday tasks that are key to an independent life.
As technology improved, the school brought in devices to help students use computers. Laser beams attached to appliances worn on the students' heads moved a cursor on a computer screen. Switches were put into eyeglass frames so students could turn a computer on and off with the blink of an eye. Students could be found designing websites featuring their favorite music groups or their poetry.
An annual Christmas concert gave them an opportunity to display their various talents.
'This concert gives them a sense of accomplishment, and that's what we're all about here," Mr. Britt said. 'It makes you feel good when you send one of these kids out into the world with the tools to survive."
When state finances were tight, Mr. Britt made an extra push to bring in private funding, holding a series of fund-raisers throughout the year.
'He was known for doing a lot with a little," said his son-in-law Andrew Thompson, of Newburyport. Many credited him for 'taking that school really to the next level," Thompson said.
Mr. Britt was born in Cambridge and studied at Worcester Polytechnic Institute for two years before graduating from the seminary. He earned a master's degree in theology from the American College at the University of Louvain in Belgium and a master's degree in religious education from the University of Loyola in Chicago.
After serving in several area parishes, he left the priesthood in the 1970s, eager to work as an advocate for children. He worked for the state's Office for Children until he landed the job at the Massachusetts Hospital School. He retired three years ago.
Mr. Britt leaves his wife, Loretta; a daughter, Michelle Britt-Thompson of Newburyport; a son, Mark Haven of Oakland, Calif.; his brother, Michael of Winchester; two sisters, Betty Sheridan of Greenwich, Conn., and Mary Tetro of Fairfield, Conn.; and two grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. today in St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton. Burial will be in Canton Corner Cemetery.
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