As thousands of children across New Brunswick head to class this morning, the woman who helped bring full-day public kindergarten to the province is being mourned.
Shirley Dysart, who led the introduction of a universal kindergarten program in New Brunswick in 1991, died in Saint John on Wednesday. She was 88.
Dysart, a former teacher and Liberal politician, spearheaded the initiative while serving as the province's first female education minister in the Frank McKenna government.
"She'll have many items in her legacy, but probably most important in terms of her political legacy, would be her contribution to education," said McKenna, describing her as "the author of kindergarten in New Brunswick."
"The respect the teachers had for her allowed her to negotiate a deal that was extremely difficult at the time because of lack of money, but based on trust, we were able to get kindergarten implemented and that was a great feather in her cap."
Dysart was also the first woman to chair Saint John's school board, the first female speaker of the legislature and the first woman to serve as the leader of a party as interim Liberal leader in 1985.
"Every role she took was a trail-blazing role," said McKenna. "And she did it all with great confidence and grace. She had a wonderful grace about her that everybody couldn't help but remark upon."
McKenna, who is currently in Colombia, said he regrets he won't be able to attend Dysart's funeral, but considers it a "privilege" to have served with her.
Jim Lockyer, a fellow cabinet minister under McKenna, also remarked on Dysart's "grace" and "elegance."
"She was a wonderful person," he said.
Aldea Landry, who was elected in 1987 and also served as a minister in the McKenna government, said Dysart was "really well-respected. More than respected, she was loved."
Landry credited Dysart for helping her "learn the ropes," including "how to navigate with male colleagues in cabinet and in caucus."
"Just watching her operate respectfully, but firmly, collaboratively … that was a winning situation for me. It was very, very helpful."
Landry said she also accompanied Dysart when she visited several schools.
"I saw her understanding of education but also her empathy for the teachers and the school boards and the many demands. She was a pro, no question."
Dysart, who was elected in 1974 as the MLA for what was then the Saint John North riding, and re-elected four times before leaving politics in 1995, "took the view that public service was an honourable thing," said her son, Britt.
She "always believed that continued outside of politics – through her charitable involvement and through her continued support of youth. She saw her life as a continuum."
He believes his mother's childhood helped shape her desire to contribute.
She grew up in a poor area of Saint John during economically challenging times, he said. She was the eldest of eight children and helped raise her siblings while both her parents worked multiple jobs.
"She always had a feeling that as she went on teachers' college and then a Beaverbrook overseas scholar, she felt that she had to give back, and that was it."