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Paula Goldberg, fearless advocate for children with disabilities and co-founder of the PACER Center, dies at 79


Paula Goldberg never took the stage even though she was responsible for bringing Diana Ross, Idina Menzel, Jay Leno and a parade of stars to Minneapolis to raise money for the PACER Center. She just wanted to make sure she could help children with disabilities.

“She was tenacious, very visionary,” said PACER board member and friend Kathy Graves. “She wasn’t afraid of anything. She called anyone, anywhere, anytime. She wasn’t afraid of fame, money, power or privilege. That’s why she did so much.”

Goldberg went from a Minneapolis elementary school teacher to an internationally recognized advocate for disabled and bullied children.

In Washington DC, she was luring senators apart for a one-on-one at events to discuss disability issues.

“Because of the way she had developed her organization, she just had a lot of respect when it came to these issues,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said. “She had national leadership.”

Goldberg died Sunday of natural causes at her winter home in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 79 years old.

As a new mom, Klobuchar met Goldberg in 1995 when her daughter was having trouble swallowing. The problem went away but the relationship with Goldberg never went away.

“In our decades of friendship, I have watched Paula plead with such joy,” Klobuchar said. “She has improved the lives of so many people.

“PACER did tons of things with technology before it was cool. PACER was on the cutting edge of bullying. Paula tackled new issues as they arose.”

In 1976, Goldberg and disabled lobbyist Marge Goldberg (no relation) founded the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights. In 2006, PACER created its National Center for the Prevention of Bullying.

Based in Bloomington, the $6.8 million PACER responded to more than 35,000 requests for assistance and information from parents during the 2020-21 school year.

“Her mission was to help everyone she touched,” said Isabel Garcia, recently retired president and CEO of Parent To Parent of Miami, who met Goldberg in 1999. “She visited most Parent To Parent centers There are about 110 across the U.S. She has helped almost every center move from an email to building websites and becoming more professional and developing reporting so we can continue to be funded.

Catching the empathy virus

Goldberg grew up in Rochester, going with her mother to Rochester State Hospital — people called it “the psychiatric hospital” — to deliver food and gifts to patients. At the Mayo Clinic, where her mother ran medical practices, Paula sat with sick children. She caught the empathy virus.

After teaching in Minneapolis, she moved to a school in Chicago, discovering her affinity for students with special needs. She attended the School of Social Services at the University of Chicago before becoming a full-time mother of two sons. The family moved back to Minnesota when her husband, Mel, began teaching at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

Goldberg found his calling after President Gerald Ford signed a law in 1975 guaranteeing every child with a disability equal access to education.

Calling himself a “pragmatic optimist,” Goldberg was relentless and relentlessly positive, building PACER from a small south Minneapolis storefront to a sleek, tech-savvy suburban building with 60 employees and 30 different programs, consulting with organizations around the world to help parents care for their disabled children.

Shortly after his son David, a tech entrepreneur, died of heart failure in 2015, the pragmatic optimist told his widowed daughter-in-law, Sheryl Sandberg, “I will dance at your wedding.”

Says Graves: “She really meant it.”

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Sandberg, best-selling author and COO of Meta, referred to a sign in Goldberg’s PACER office: “Nothing is impossible.”

“It’s a perfect motto for the incredible woman the world has lost,” wrote Sandberg, who is remarrying this summer.

Graves, whose adult son has cerebral palsy, said Goldberg was driven by a deep sense of fairness and justice.

“She really saw in our souls that we needed each other,” Graves said.

The PACER executive director also had a soft spot for Minnesota sports. While working on Sundays, Goldberg suddenly stopped to watch the Vikings game on television. When she attended games in person, however, she never stopped networking for PACER, putting the people she met in the buttonhole.

This also happened in airplanes. She once sat next to comedian Robin Williams.

“By the time they landed, they had traded [business] cards and he was going to volunteer,” said longtime PACER board member Don McNeil.

Goldberg was predeceased by her husband and son David. Survivors include son Rob Goldberg, daughter-in-law Sandberg and five grandchildren. Services are scheduled for 12:30 p.m. May 23 at Congregation Adath Jeshurun ​​in Minnetonka, with shiva at 7 p.m. there.

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