Lorraine M. Sheehan, a tenacious disability rights advocate who served in the General Assembly and had been Maryland's secretary of state, died of pneumonia complicated by cystic fibrosis Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Edgewater resident was 72.
Family members said that Ms. Sheehan resolved to become involved in defending the rights of the disabled after physicians advised her to place a son diagnosed with autism and retardation in an institution. Years later, she fought successfully to close the Rosewood Center, a hospital for the severely disabled; the facility in Owings Mills closed in June.
Born Lorraine Cantin in Manchester, N.H., she attended schools there and moved to New York City, Scranton, Pa., and Prince George's County, where her husband, Peter Sheehan, was a union organizer.
The mother of four children, she became frustrated with the medical - and later education - communities when a doctor at Children's Hospital in Washington advised her to institutionalize her son. She later directed much of her energy to finding ways to independently house people with disabilities.
"She was tenacious, kind and fair," said her daughter, Laura Carr of Edgewater. "She was a very strong person who was ready to fight for the underdog."
Ms. Sheehan was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1974 and represented a district in Prince George's County. She was re-elected in 1978 and 1982, and during that period successfully campaigned to have the Washington Metro subway system routed to serve blue-collar workers who lived near Branch Avenue. Newspaper articles described her as a champion of women's issues, and she supported abortion rights.
Ms. Sheehan served on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
Family members said she concentrated on disability issues, as well as women and family issues. She introduced legislation on transportation for students with disabilities and a bill to address the state Developmental Disabilities Administration's lengthy waiting list for assistance.
In 1983, Gov. Harry R. Hughes named her secretary of state.
"She had a great concern for others," Mr. Hughes said. "And she did a great job for me."
She held the post for four years.
She later became a lobbyist and represented nonprofit agencies, including the Maryland Center for Community Development, Job Opportunities Task Force, Maryland Disability Law Center and Maryland Mental Health Association.
She expanded her interests and work on reducing gun violence, as well as teen smoking and other health issues.
"She was a sweetheart," said Vincent DeMarco of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative.
She was president of The Arc of the United States, a national advocacy organization serving children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She also held Arc's Maryland and Anne Arundel County presidencies.
She was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in 2002 and was the 2009 Advocate of the Year for the Anne Arundel Disability Commission.
"Her keen sense of political strategy combined with fierce determination and unwavering tenacity made her a role model and mentor for hundreds of people with disabilities," said Arc of Maryland director Christy Marchand, who lives in Deale. "Thousands more have benefited from her advocacy at the state, local and national levels."
Family members said that her longtime work to help her son allowed him to live at home and become integrated into the Edgewater community. He now runs a recycling business.
A memorial service will be held Jan. 6 at the Annapolis Loew's. The time has not been set.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include three sons, Peter Joseph Sheehan of Hedgesville, W.Va., John Sheehan of Edgewater and Niall Sheehan of Laurel; and seven grandchildren. Her marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s.