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Maureen DiMarco dies at 66; state Cabinet's first education secretary

Maureen DiMarco, appointed California's first Cabinet-level education secretary, has died. She was 66

Maureen DiMarco, an outspoken education activist who was appointed California's first Cabinet-level education secretary in 1990 but resigned six years later after policy disputes with Gov. Pete Wilson, died Saturday at her home in Sacramento. She was 66.

DiMarco had been in poor health for several months, her daughter Noelle M. Reed said.

DiMarco was known for her candor and disarming humor. When she announced her resignation, an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle said that "the gray governor's team will have lost its last splash of loud color."

"In a world of toadies, she showed spine," the newspaper said.

When California schools veered away from teaching traditional math calculations and toward problem-solving skills, DiMarco minced no words. At a 1995 meeting of concerned parents in Palo Alto, she famously called the movement "fuzzy crap."

"Everyone was dancing around the issue and she was the first one to really speak out," said Ze'ev Wurman, a former official with the U.S. Department of Education and a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "This was very uncharacteristic of high government officials."

A Democrat, DiMarco held a number of positions that were at odds with those of her Republican boss. She opposed school vouchers, a measure that Wilson favored. She also had no use for Proposition 187, the initiative that aimed to bar illegal immigrants from public schools, healthcare and welfare.

"She firmly believed that education had nothing to do with party politics," Reed said. "She had no hesitation to take a stand that wasn't consistent with her own Democratic leanings or her boss' Republican leanings."

Born Aug. 2, 1948, in Rochester, N.Y., Maureen Marilyn Gallagher moved with her family to Covina as a teenager. She attended USC as a geology major on a full scholarship but quit to marry engineering graduate student Richard DiMarco and raise a family.

Her lack of a college degree became an issue during her unsuccessful 1994 race against Delaine Eastin for California superintendent of public instruction, the state's top elected education post.

"I'll match my M-O-M to anyone's B.S. or B.A. anywhere in the state," she said, responding to a reporter's question.

She later received a USC Alumni Merit Award, despite the course work she never completed.

As a young mother, DiMarco volunteered in her two daughters' Orange County classrooms, served on school committees and in 1981 was elected to the board of the Garden Grove Unified School District, where she served for 10 years.

During the 1980s, she also was a consultant to the state Department of Education, and in 1990 became president of the California School Boards Assn.

Wilson said he created DiMarco's post — secretary of Child Development and Education — to bring schooling and certain social services for children under the same bureaucratic umbrella.

DiMarco soon found herself in the middle of recession-triggered budget problems that forced widespread layoffs in California schools.

In 1991, she defended Wilson's controversial $2-billion cutback — although she had fought passionately against cuts proposed by Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s. Bill Honig, the superintendent of public instruction, called Wilson's budget "hypocritical" and "anti-child," and criticized his former ally for supporting it.

"There will be a heavy impact," DiMarco acknowledged. "But the fact of the matter is that unless California gets this under control this year, the impact next year and the year after will be more devastating toward children."

By the time she resigned, the state had invested $1.2 billion to reduce class sizes in primary grades, buy improved textbooks and establish better methods to teach reading.

DiMarco worked in government relations for textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin from 1996 until 2009, and then was a consultant for McGraw-Hill Education.

In addition to her husband, Richard, and daughter Noelle, her survivors include another daughter, Marianne P. DiMarco-Temkin; five grandchildren and her brother Kevin Gallagher.

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