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Maria Hartman, co-founder of group supporting Down Syndrome children, dies at 83

Hartman bucked prevailing custom, saying that institutionalizing her special-needs baby was something she would never do.

Maria Hartman in 1966, as she helped to

Maria Hartman in 1966, as she helped to formally launch the Association for Children with Down Syndrome. Credit: Hartman Family

Back in 1965 Maria Hartman and her husband, William, still in the hospital maternity ward, were told it would be best to place their new baby boy in an institution. John, their fourth child, was born with Down syndrome, and the typical message of the day was to whisk these special needs children off to such establishments.

“I cried that first week, but after that I thanked God it wasn’t worse and started working for him,” Maria Hartman, then of East Meadow, told Newsday three years later. “That’s what parents have to do, work for their child.”

And work she did, along with her husband and a core group of other Long Island parents, learning about the genetic disorder, supporting other families, eventually helping to elucidate those in the medical community, as well as redirect public sentiment.

Fifty three years after co-founding what’s now the Association for Children with Down Syndrome in Plainview, Hartman died April 14, at her home in Derwood, Md., following a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, her family said. She was 83.

Marveling at his mother’s legacy, William Hartman lll of Emmitsburg, Md., describes “a minority, a woman, fighting against the status quo” back in the turbulent times of the Civil Rights movement. “It does make you tear for joy,” he said, thinking of how children and families were released from what was then a “deep, dark secret.”

Born June 21, 1935, in Salinas, Puerto Rico, his mother, with others, worked to reverse the notion that there was no hope for children with Down syndrome, as in, “Do yourself a favor and leave them behind,” he said. She countered, telling parents that, “There is hope. What you were told is not true,” and here’s how we can help, recalls Hartman, age 6 when his brother John was born and often listening in on those living room conversations.

Maria Hartman, herself, said that institutionalizing her baby was never an option to her. As a social worker at Bellevue Hospital, she had seen “so many children who were just left in the wards and the parents never came back.” She said to herself then that, were she ever to have a special-needs child, “I won’t give him up,” she told Newsday.

Now also living in Maryland, John Hartman, 53, graduated from high school there, took classes at a local community college and works full time at an area hospital in a cleaning and hygiene role. “He loves to go to work,” his brother said. “It’s a big deal for him.”

Born into poverty, their mother was “embraced by a nun,” who helped guide her and paved the way for her move to New York, where she received a master's in social work from Fordham University, William Hartman said. He traces her can-do spirit, in part, to having experienced first hand a seemingly dead end, which wasn't so dead, once you connect with others and activate the “ability of looking over the hill.”

It was at a USO dance in the mid-1950s that she and some friends asked a young man serving in the Navy if they could cut ahead of him in the food line. William E. Hartman Jr., was charmed, and “the rest is history,” their son William said. The couple married in 1958 and moved to East Meadow in 1964. Ten years later, the family relocated to Maryland.

Back in the day, the Hartmans and others, “created their own options,” said Michael M. Smith, executive director of the Plainview-based Down syndrome association.

From the seeds they sowed has grown an agency that runs eight group homes, with schools in Plainview and Westchester, graduating more than 3,000 young people over the years, he said.

Maria Hartman “helped start a movement, actually a civil rights movement for the John Andrew Hartmans of the world to have the right to be educated with their siblings and peers,” Smith said in a letter to her family. “We should all leave such a legacy.”

Besides her sons and her husband of 60 years, Hartman is also survived by daughters Janet Maguire of Oakton, Va., and Sharon Hartman-Williams of Bon Air, Va.; other sons Kenneth Hartman of Bethesda, Md. and Garrett Hartman of Accra, Ghana; and 13 grandchildren. Son Robert Hartman died in 2014 from heart disease.

Visitation was planned for Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Home, Rockville, Md. A Mass of Christian burial was planned for Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Rockville, Md., followed by burial in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Silver Spring, Md.

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