Isabel Sainz, refugee and devoted special education teacher in Baltimore County, dies

Isabel Sainz
Isabel Sainz (Courtesy photo)

Isabel Sainz, a political refugee from Cuba who became a devoted special-education teacher in Baltimore County, one who would bring her students to restaurants and shops and encourage them to participate in society, died Thursday of Alzheimer’s disease at her home in Towson. She was 81.

Trained as a dentist in Cuba, Mrs. Sainz became an educator after her third child, Carlos Sainz, was born with cerebral palsy. Doctors said the boy would never be independent, but Mrs. Sainz refused to send him to a home as the doctors advised, said her son Pablo Sainz.


Instead, she taught the boy to walk and talk. Inspired by him, she earned a master’s degree in special education from the Johns Hopkins University in 1984. Then she worked as a special education teacher at Battle Monument School in Dundalk for more than a decade, promoting her beliefs about inclusion.

She believed students “need to go out in the public and learn how to do things like other people do,” Pablo Sainz said. “They would raise funds in the school and take a school bus to McDonald’s and buy the food and learn how to get change. A lot of that stuff trickled down throughout the school system.”


Born in Havana to a family of dentists, Isabel Palancar Sainz earned a doctorate in dental surgery from the University of Havana in 1960. She married an electrical engineer, Miguel Sainz. They had one child and while she was pregnant with their second child, they fled Cuba in 1962, fearful of religious persecution under the regime of Fidel Castro. Mrs. Sainz told of how the plane was hushed, its passengers frightened, until the pilot announced they had reached international waters.

“The whole plane erupted,” Pablo Sainz said.

The young couple landed in Miami, but they had been forced to leave behind all their belongings.

“They left with just the clothes they had on and whatever they had in their pockets,” said Monsignor Thomas Tewes, a retired pastor at Saint Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in North Baltimore, the family’s parish. “They had a very hard life.”

Miguel Sainz found work in Washington, D.C. and the family moved to the Mid-Govans neighborhood in North Baltimore. Mrs. Sainz worked for the city on cases of dental insurance fraud, Pablo Sainz said. The couple raised six children.

Still, Mrs. Sainz missed Havana and the family maintained the Cuban traditions. She often cooked “arroz con pollo,” chicken with rice. They ate the traditional roast pork at Christmas and they celebrated Three Kings' Day. The children would set their shoes outside their bedroom and wake to find small gifts tucked inside the shoes.

Her niece, Melia Palancar of Miami, remembers visiting as a child and finding the Sainz home rich with affection.

“She’s always been my role model as a mother,” her niece said.

Mrs. Sainz was devoted to her children, forever writing them notes with lines of Scripture and sayings from Mother Teresa. In 1975, Miguel Sainz became a deacon in their church. The family’s faith was deep and strong, Monsignor Tewes said.

Each Sunday, Mrs. Sainz sat in the first pew at church. She prayed often to the Blessed Mother, and the parlor in the church rectory is dedicated to the family.

“She brought faith into every conversation you had with her,” Monsignor Tewes said. “She had a great trust in God.”

Mrs. Sainz worked about 15 years for Baltimore County Public Schools before she retired in 1998. In retirement, with her children grown, she moved with her husband to the Ridgely Condominiums in Towson.


The couple stayed active in the church, went on cruises, danced and developed a fondness for the reggae music of Bob Marley. Mrs. Sainz wrote letters and original poems; she filled a binder with original poems. Pablo Sainz keeps framed in his home the letter his mother wrote him when he bought his house.

Mrs. Sainz was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than 10 years ago. As her health worsened, she wrote letters for her children to read after her death.

“We haven’t sat down and read them all yet,” Pablo Sainz said. “Some of them were about how to live life, how to take care of each other, and take care of Pop.”

Deacon Sainz remained a devoted caretaker as his wife’s health worsened — their romance evident in one particular gift he bought her over and over again: penguin figurines. Before they married, they accompanied her father on a business trip to Miami and stayed in separate rooms at the Penguin Hotel. Deacon Sainz bought his wife Christmas ornaments of penguins and stuffed animals of penguins — enough to fill a display case. They were married 57 years. As he would tell her: Penguins mate for life.

Funeral services will be held 10 a.m. Monday at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, 5502 York Road, Baltimore.

In addition to sons Pablo and Carlos, and her husband, Miguel, survivors include her children Miguel and Jose Sainz, Ana McIntyre and Carmen Draayer, 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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