Paula Goldberg, fearless advocate for children with disabilities and PACER Center cofounder, 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 that she could help the children with disabilities.

“She was tenacious, very visionary,” said Kathy Graves, a PACER board member and friend. “She was fearless. She’d call anybody, anywhere, anytime. She was unfraid of celebrity, money, power or privilege. That’s why she got so much done.”

Goldberg went from a Minneapolis grade-school teacher to an internationally recognized advocate for children dealing with disabilities and bullying.

In Washington DC, she would pull senators aside for a tete-a-tete during events to discuss disability issues.

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

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

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

“Through our decades of friendship, I watched Paula advocate with such joy,” Klobuchar said. “She improved so many people’s lives.

“PACER did tons of stuff with technology before it was cool. PACER was out front on bullying. Paula took on new issues as they arose.”

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

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

“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 of the Parent To Parent centers. There are about 110 of them throughout the United States. She helped almost all the centers go from having an e-mail to creating websites and becoming more professional and developing reports so we could continue to be funded.”

Catching the empathy bug

Goldberg grew up in Rochester, going with her mother to Rochester State Hospital — people called it “the mental hospital” — to bring food and gifts to patients. At Mayo Clinic, where her mom managed doctors’ offices, Paula would sit with sick children. She caught the empathy bug.

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

Goldberg found her calling after President Gerald Ford signed legislation in 1975 guaranteeing every disabled child equal access to an education.

Calling herself “a pragmatic optimist,” Goldberg was relentless and relentlessly positive, building PACER from a small south Minneapolis storefront to a stylish, tech-savvy suburban building with 60 staffers and 30 different programmes, consulting with organizations around the world to help parents to parents deal with their children with disabilities.

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

Said Graves: “She meant it.”

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Sandberg, a bestselling author and COO of Meta, mentioned a sign in Goldberg’s PACER office: “Nothing is impossible.”

“That is a perfect motto for the incredible woman that the world lost,” wrote Sandberg, who is getting remarried this summer.

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

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

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

That happened on airplanes, too. She once sat next to comedian Robin Williams.

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

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

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