Teacher, Harvard Benefactor Dies at 81

Dorothy V. Colmes, who taught children with learning disabilities, loved the symphony and founded a Harvard Medical School research fund, died last Tuesday of cancer. She was 81.

Colmes and her husband, Bernard “Buddy” M. Colmes, established the Dorothy V. Colmes Fund for Lymphedema Research in 1998, when Colmes herself was battling ovarian cancer.

As a result of the radiation treatment she received, Colmes developed lymphedema—a condition that causes swelling of the arms or legs. In most cases, the onset of lymphedema, which affects 250 million people worldwide, occurs after treatment for cancer.

When Colmes and her husband realized little research was being done to find a cure for the condition, they decided to help, Bernard Colmes said.

Since then, the husband and wife worked with a researcher at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Beyond her efforts to find a cure for lymphedema, Colmes was best known as a teacher whose jobs ranged from teaching preschool to English as a second language.

Colmes’ 50-year teaching career began at Temple Mishkan Tefila in Boston where she taught English as a second language to Russian immigrants. She then taught preschool at local public and private schools in the Boston area.

In 1975, Colmes began tutoring students with learning disabilities at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, said Catherine David,the school’s director of communications and the mother of one of the hundreds of students Colmes tutored.

Colmes’ husband said he has been flooded with cards from his wife’s former students recalling her profound influence on their lives.

“She taught with love,” Bernard Colmes said. “When there was a difficult student, they would send him to her. Instead of berating him, she put her arm around him, and it worked.”

Colmes’ long-time colleague Cheryl Bruun agreed.

“For the kids, sitting with her was like sitting with a grandmother who just adores you,” Bruun said.

Colmes’ students stayed in contact with her long after their sessions with her had ended.

“A little nine-year-old came to her funeral because he loved my mother so much,” said Colmes’ daughter, Francia C. Davis.

David S. Garsh, another of Colmes’ former students, said he continued to call Colmes throughout high school and college every time he received a good grade on a paper.

“She was like a third grandma to me,” said David S. Garsh, who is now a senior at Connecticut College. “Beside my family, I was closest with her.”

Colmes’ family said she was also highly involved in her local temples.

Before she was debilitated by lymphedema, Colmes enjoyed frequent visits to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, her daughter said.

Colmes’ teaching and three granddaughters were the parts of her life that made her most proud, Davis said.

In addition to her husband and her daughter Francia Davis, Colmes is survived by another daughter, Wendy Davis-Sammis, a sister, Judith Fleischman and three grandchildren.