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Mary J. Lang, 83, advocate for educating children with special needs

Dec. 31, 1934 – June 29, 2018

Mary Lang didn’t plan on becoming an expert in education law. All she wanted was to get her son, who had neurological problems, the help he needed in school.

“He had difficulty sitting still, and learning math,” she told Buffalo News reporter Paula Voell in 1993. “The attitude then was that if you punished kids and were rigid enough, somehow they’d learn. By fifth grade, my son had broken down and wouldn’t go to school.”

She took her complaints to school officials. When she felt they were patronizing her, it strengthened her resolve.

She told Voell that one principal said, “ ‘You know, Mrs. Lang, we’ve done more for your kids.’ Like it was some big gift they had given our children, instead of the right they had to an education.”

In 1972, she started volunteering at the newly established Education Law Clinic at the University at Buffalo law school and soon became the office manager. When she retired in 1993, she was the clinic’s associate director.

Her son went on to a career as a professional photographer in San Diego, after earning a four-year college degree.

Mrs. Lang died June 29 in Beechwood Health Care Center, Getzville, after a lengthy illness. She was 83.

Born in Buffalo, the oldest of three children, the former Mary J. Detig was a 1952 graduate of Bennett High School. Introduced by a friend to Harry H. Lang, they were married in 1953.

She completed a bachelor’s degree at Empire State College while she was working at the Education Law Clinic.

A hard-nosed advocate for parents of children with special needs, one school superintendent called her “Mad Dog Lang.”

“It sends out a certain message when the district knows Mary is coming,” a North Tonawanda parent told Voell in 1993. “You have a little bit of clout when they know you’re coming in with Mary.”

An attorney at the Education Law Clinic, Melinda Saran, recalled how Mrs. Lang used her clout in a meeting in southern Erie County where school officials were seated on a riser in big comfortable chairs, while the parents were given elementary school chairs on the floor below.

“Our client went over to sit in one of the chairs,” she said. “Mary grabbed her by her shirt and yanked her back, announcing that ‘we will sit down when you provide us with some adult chairs.’ I could not help but laugh picturing Mary trying to lower her tall self into one of those chairs. But I also realized her strength is refusing to allow parents to be bullied and disregarded concerning their children’s needs.”

Saran noted that Mrs. Lang “represented hundreds of families and trained a generation of attorneys,” adding that she “also trained hundreds of parents to advocate for their own children.”

Buffalo attorney Bruce A. Goldstein, who met Mrs. Lang during the early days of the Education Law Clinic, recalled that “she challenged me (professionally and personally) with her energy, intellect, sense of outrage, commitment to children, outspokenness and impatience with BS. Together we brought class action lawsuits, developed a lay advocate training program for parents and worked together on numerous initiatives."

“While she was passionate and a fighter,” said Judy Gerber, a teacher at the Education Law Clinic, “she was also highly strategic and sophisticated in her application of the law. She built a network of providers who served the children we represented and never lacked for finding a resource for our kids.”

“I think of her as the angel of handicapped kids,” a South Buffalo mother noted in an article in Buffalo magazine in 1987.

Upon her retirement in 1993, the Parent Network Center presented her with its Legal Advocacy Award.

She was a member of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities.

Mrs. Lang's daughter, Betsy Ulmer, said that her mother also taught her three children to be advocates when three of their children had special needs. She noted that those three grandchildren have become a homicide detective, a firefighter and a pilot.

Former residents of the Town of Tonawanda and Amherst, Mrs. Lang and her husband, director of engineering and maintenance at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, divided their retirement years between a summer cottage on Chautauqua Lake at Dewittville Bay and a winter home in Southern California.

Her husband died in 2011.

A player piano will be dedicated in her name at Bristol Village in Clarence, where she was a resident from 2014 until earlier this year.

Survivors include another daughter, Karen DeMeester; a son, Mark H.; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

A celebration of her life will be held at 10 a.m. July 28 in Amigone Funeral Home, 5200 Sheridan Drive, Amherst.

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