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Margaret Lowe

Photo of Margaret Lowe

Godmother of Special Ed in Alaska

Margaret Lowe dedicated her life to advocacy and program development for children widows and their families beginning in the early 1950s. Over five decades in Alaska, she helped build many of the programs and services in Alaska that continue today to help children, adults and families with special needs including those experiencing other mental or emotional differences. Lowe began her work at a time when children with disabilities were still being removed from their families and institutionalized, but she strongly believed that with proper education and support, these children could lead productive lives within the community. She worked hard toward these goals throughout her career and achieved much success.  A comment reportedly made by Ed Graff, previous Superintendent of Anchorage School District: “I know Margaret…..she’s the godmother of special education in Alaska.“  

In her earliest years in Alaska, Lowe was one of the first classroom teachers at the Alaska Native Medical Center Hospital on Third Avenue in Anchorage where she learned a great deal about Alaska and developed a deep appreciation for the Alaska Native people. She continued to travel throughout the State of Alaska through her work and advocacy so she could continue to better understand the realities of providing services to Alaskans in rural and remote areas. She lived in Fairbanks for nine years where she completed her master’s degree in special education at UAF. For her thesis project, she developed a full preschool curriculum and presented it as a daily television show known as “School For Fun.” At that time there was no school or any curriculum for kids with developmental and intellectual disabilities. This lack of programs led to Lowe’s concern and involvement in the development of a strong parent group known as The Arctic Association for Retarded Children, a term used at the beginning of that movement. This group later became a chapter of the National Association. With a great deal of parental support and fundraising, a preschool for those children with special needs was organized with the ability to hire a teacher, and Lowe’s special needs preschool curriculum was used for that school.

With her move to Anchorage in 1964, Lowe became very active in the Parents Association for Retarded Children of Anchorage – now known as the ARC of Anchorage. She began as a volunteer but was soon setting up another preschool and became involved with others working hard on legislation so these children would be statutorily allowed to be in public school programs. President Kennedy instigated the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation which was a breakthrough for the whole field of developmental disabilities and led to the development of Alaska’s Governor’s Council on Special Education and Developmental Disabilities which Lowe eventually chaired.

In 1969, Lowe went back as a special education classroom teacher with the Anchorage School District (ASD) where she continued to work with students, teachers and parents of those experiencing developmental disabilities and those experiencing autism. She completed her administrative credentials in public school administration and special education and became the principal at the Whaley Center serving diverse populations of students with disabilities from 1975 to 1985. On through to her retirement from the ASD in 1985, Lowe had initiated and administered most of their special educational programs including serving as supervisor for the Blind and Visually Impaired Program.

Lowe served as Director of the State Division of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities and as Commissioner of Health and Social Services. During this time Alaska changed the term of Mental Retardation, which only measured IQ, to the federal definition of developmental disabilities, which was based on all sorts of behavioral traits acquired prior to birth or before the age of 22. Additionally, she served as consultant, adjunct professor, teacher and counselor trainer and program evaluator throughout the state. She also traveled to Russia eight times doing research, consulting and program development. There, she consulted with government agencies regarding how to develop basic programs for people who were in institutions and had very special needs. She worked with Russian orphanages to identify and the importance of intervention with the very young residents who were developmentally delayed, and she provided an introduction to autism to Russian public schools, explaining to them how autistic students were educated in the United States. She also spoke with psychiatric hospitals in rural areas of Russia about the importance of social interventions and therapy in addition to medical support.

Lowe had a serious interest in the Mental Health (MH) Trust since 1962 when still in Fairbanks. During her tenure as a state bureaucrat, the papers were signed establishing the statutory existence of the MH Trust. Lowe worked tirelessly to make sure the settlement of the Mental Health Land Trust included services for a more inclusive population of those who experienced mental illness and mental retardation as well as those with traumatic brain injuries, autism, epilepsy, severe emotional disturbance, cerebral palsy, severe physical disabilities and those experiencing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Once the $200 million in funding was secured, then came the challenge of ensuring services were available to serve these diverse populations. During this time, the closing of Harborview in Valdez (an institution for developmentally disabled and mentally ill Alaskans) was planned and implemented. The Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) was also being planned.

As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority from 2005 to 2008 and Chair of their Rural Outreach Committee, Lowe was proactive in addressing very individualized and family-centered programs like Respite Care which was a significant program developed to provide families with funds to hire a competent relief worker for their child with special needs. With their goal to “Bring the Kids Home,” Alaskan programs were developed to provide local support for children who were seriously emotionally disturbed rather than placing them in programs out of state. Work force development issues were also being addressed to train more care providers to assist people in learning to work as well as providing their personal care. From 2002 to 2005, Lowe lived in Bethel in a construction trailer for weeks at a time to assist with further development of the local community services being provided to those experiencing developmental disabilities. Lowe thrived in rural Alaska and adapted quickly to the hardy way of life which she found to be both rewarding and life changing. She walked to work even when it was cold and windy and she enjoyed living in a community where people bonded together to help solve problems like frozen pipes. She embraced the strong sense of community that spanned generations to bring together aunts, uncles, grandparents and grandchildren

A Life on Purpose

Lowe’s parents were immigrants from Norway and came through Ellis Island in 1910 and 1914. They had very limited education themselves, but had a high regard for education and were very concerned that all of their five children would have good educations.   Lowe was raised to believe that one person can make a difference and that the very best things that happen in our country are those that come from the ground up, and that every person really can be an agent for change.

Lowe found mentors for effective citizen participation at the local and state levels in her earliest years in Alaska. Vic Fischer, a politician, taught Lowe about good government and how to advocate and be an honest person. Gov. Wally Hickel provided a role model for how to live all phases of life with integrity. Lowe was also inspired by parents like Teresa Thurston, a ruthless advocate for her boys who experienced disabilities; and Lee Brandon, who made her special taco recipe for many fundraisers, had two sons at Morningside and was determined things were going to get better for all of these children. Mary Carey, a Public Health Nurse in Fairbanks, identified a community need and figured out how to fill it.

Lowe belonged to the League of Women Voters, which had a very strong chapter in Anchorage. She helped charter the American Association of University Women (AAUW) whose first cause was to advocate with the university’s administration to get physical education for women, which was accomplished.

An important focus of her life related to her belief that the political system only works if people are involved in it. Even now, she sometimes works on issues that affect senior citizens. However, the area that she continues to be most concerned about is the quality of education in our country because democracy requires a literate population. Her current reading interests still include ecology, the environment, politics and the language and history of Russia. She enjoys knitting and needle point, playing piano, e-mailing friends, and has a personal trainer three times per week. She also recently started a “Hot Topics” monthly group at her current housing complex so residents could discuss current events and be involved politically.

As a single parent since 1973, Lowe basically worked a job and a half and raised three children: Tim (1956), Daniel (1959) and Mary (1965). Tim is a Land Economist and Appraiser living in Culver City, CA; Daniel is a Software Development Engineer living in Salem, OR; and Mary is Chair of the Religion Department at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, MN. Lowe has three granddaughters and two grandsons. “Margaret Lowe was one of the best role models I have had as a working mother. Whenever I am struggling to balance responsibilities, I think of Margaret and her strong work ethic and her many accomplishments despite her limited means, and it inspires me to keep doing my best and to renew my commitment to work, community and family.” – Elizabeth Manning

In summary, Margaret Lowe was an early visionary, a tireless pioneer and a persistent force of nature who, for over five decades, advocated for and provided services throughout the state to people who experience developmental disabilities and mental health issues.  Through all of her work, both directly and indirectly, she was committed to serving the families of youth with disabilities through her service.  Those family members were – then and now – very real and present to her, and she worked hard to assure families learned, grew and prospered as the disabled family member received a variety of services.

Lowe’s achievements, which have had significant impact

Community Achievements:

  • Developed a model preschool curriculum for children with special needs (Fairbanks and Anchorage).
  • Worked with parents to develop/support the Arctic Association for Retarded Children in Fairbanks, and then the Parents Association for Retarded Children of Anchorage, now known as ARC of Anchorage
  • While at ASD, initiated and built up programs to serve those with special needs and to better integrate them into the community.

Statewide Achievements:

  • Involved with the statutory requirement that mandated Alaskan public school programs for students with special needs.
  • Provided consultation on special needs programs to school districts and other organizations statewide.
  • As Commissioner of Health and Social Services, Margaret oversaw the organization of the Mental Health Trust and its support to those with special needs.

Education and Training

  • BS, Early Childhood & Elementary Education, University of Minnesota, 1951.
  • MA, Special Education, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, 1965
  • Education Specialist, Public School Administration Credential, University of Alaska, Anchorage, 1974.
  • Administrative Training Program, 1976. Teacher Training Program, 1975; Judevine Center for Autistic Children, St. Louis, Missouri.

Professional/Work History/Community Involvement: 

  • Prior to 1956: Classroom teacher for four years, first teacher at the Alaska Native Medical Center.
  • 1960-62: Writer/Presenter, Schools for Fun, KTVA TV Fairbanks, daily television show for preschool/primary age children.
  • 1966-1971: Alaska Governor’s Council on Mental Retardation, Governor’s Appointee and Chair. Presided over transition of the Governor’s Council into the Alaska Developmental Disabilities Council.
  • 1969-1986: Teacher, principal, program administrator, Anchorage School District. Included initiating and administering many ASD special education programs.
  • 1974-1986: Part-time adjunct faculty, UAA
  • 1985-1986: Consultant to the State of Minnesota Department of Education
  • 1972-1981: Consultant (intermittently) to school districts throughout Alaska and to the Resource Alaska Project
  • 1986: Faculty, UAA, School of Education
  • 1986-1990: President of the Arc of Anchorage
  • 1991-1993: Director, Division of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities
  • 1993-1994: Commissioner, Health and Social Services
  • 1994-1996: Owner, Humanitarian Services Consulting Company
  • 1996-1999: Executive Director, Foundation of the Arc; Associate Director, Arc of Anchorage
  • 1999-2001: Executive Director, Arc of Anchorage
  • 2005-2008: Trustee on the board of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.

Honors/Awards Received:

  • Association for Retarded Citizens, Fairbanks, Alaska, Service Award, 1964.
  • Association for Retarded Citizens, Anchorage, Alaska, Outstanding Member of the Year Award, 1975.
  • Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, President’s Award, 1982.
  • National Speaker’s Bureau of the Handicapped Nominee, 1986
  • PADD (Protection and Advocacy for the Developmentally Disabled), 1986
  • Alaska State Parents of Autistic Children Service Award, 1986
  • White House Conference on Aging Delegate, 1995

Citations of written sources of information about the nominee: • UAF, Oral History Project, The AK Mental Health Trust History, Margaret Lowe, audio interview and transcript:

Induction ceremony acceptance speech


Margaret Lowe dedicated her life to advocacy and program development for children with special needs and their families. Beginning in the 1950s and spanning five decades, she helped build programs and services in Alaska that continue today to help children, adults and families with special needs.

Lowe began her work in an era when children with disabilities were removed from their families and institutionalized. Lowe believed with proper education and support, children with mental or emotional differences could lead productive lives within the community. Lowe achieved much success towards these goals in her lifetime.

Lowe helped found a preschool for special needs children using an innovative curriculum she had developed as a graduate student. When Lowe moved to Anchorage in 1964, she became active in the Parents Association for Retarded Children of Anchorage (now known as the ARC of Anchorage) and worked on legislation that allowed children with mental disabilities to attend public schools.

Lowe worked as a consultant, teacher and program evaluator, and would go on to serve as Director of the State Division of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, and Commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services. She served on many community groups, including the Mental Health Trust Board where she ensured the trust supported a broad array of disabilities. Lowe developed programs that helped families care for special needs children at home.

Margaret Lowe was a pioneer and visionary, and a persistent force of nature who tirelessly advocated for those with developmental disabilities and mental health issues. Through a family-focused approach, she ensured that families learned, grew and thrived as disabled family members received services. Lowe believed we can all be agents of change, and demonstrated this throughout her life.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech