Virginia Kahn, a social worker and heir to a family fortune derived from early copper mining in Montana, auctioned off a Modigliani painting she inherited from her father in order to launch a progressive school in Watertown in 1982.
That painting, which her father originally bought for $10,000, sold at the Christie’s auction house for $1 million. That was enough to secure Mrs. Kahn’s dream of a primary school where students would learn the value of community, collaboration, and “how to listen to everyone’s voices,” she wrote in a memoir.
“I attacked the idea of beginning a new school with a passion that came from deep within me,” Mrs. Kahn wrote in her self-published 2007 memoir, “Never a Dull Moment,” in which she described separating from her husband after 25 years and making the Atrium School her new love.
“I did remarry — I married the whole concept of starting the Atrium School,” she said. “My heart and soul went into it.”
Mrs. Kahn, who was 90 when she died Sept. 21 in her Cambridge home, had little use for the trappings of wealth and high society. Growing up in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City in the 1930s, she hated her chauffeured limo rides to school because she felt alienated from her friends, she wrote.
The iron bars her parents installed on her bedroom window, which were designed to keep her safe following the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, instead filled her with terror as a toddler.
Her philosophy of education drew from her own experiences attending the progressive Lincoln School in New York City, where she became fascinated with the Pueblo Indian culture, beginning in the third grade.
“The force of learning intensely about another people by literally walking in their moccasins has stayed with me throughout my life,” said Mrs. Kahn, who graduated from Vassar College with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1949 and earned a master’s in social work from Simmons College in Boston.
She worked with Navajo children in the 1940s and spent much of her later life living part of the year in Santa Fe in a traditional adobe home dating to 1899.
Mrs. Kahn was a counselor at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge when the idea of founding the Atrium School became possible. New property tax limits in Massachusetts had hit funding for public schools and demand for private education increased, former colleagues said.
“She had the vision and the wherewithal to make it happen,” said Bruce Droste, who was the Atrium’s founding director and headmaster during the 1980s. He added that Mrs. Kahn “cared about people, and she saw there was a need to be filled.”
Mrs. Kahn, who was called Ginny, was known for her ability to instantly connect with children. With sapphire blue eyes and an impish grin, she maintained a childlike quality throughout her life, according to her family.
“She could go to that place of joy and love and honesty,” said one of her daughters, Sarah Kahn of Newton. “She could name what was going on in the universe like no one else. Her gift was she knew how to share it with us.”
One of Mrs. Kahn’s favorite stories about Atrium students was a child’s reaction upon learning she was the school’s “founder.” The child wanted to know how long the school had been lost.
“She had a vision. but she also knew the school had to grow and become. She really supported its emergence,” said Connie Henry, a former faculty member who now works in Boston Public Schools.
At an annual maypole celebration at the Atrium School one year, when gusts of wind threatened to topple the maypole, Mrs. Kahn walked over and personally held it to keep the children safe for the rest of the dance.
“She just could roll up her sleeves,” Henry said. “She was always herself. She was always authentic.”
Current Atrium head of school Marshall W. Carter said that the school owes Mrs. Kahn “profound gratitude” for its beginning and its ongoing values.
“She loved having our students visit her at home; often they would quite literally sit at her feet to hear her wonderful stories,” Carter wrote in a message on the school’s website. “More often though, she asked them questions, and she listened intently to their answers. Ginny had an unusually profound respect for all kinds of children, and all kinds of learners.”
Born Virginia Lewisohn in New York City in 1927, Mrs. Kahn was the youngest of four sisters. Her father, Sam Lewisohn, was an investment banker and a collector of Impressionist paintings, many of which he left to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1950s.
Mrs. Kahn recalled in her memoir that in 1972, when news broke of a Met director’s plan to sell a Renoir and a Gauguin from her father’s collection, Mrs. Kahn helped prevent the sale when she wrote a pointed letter, which was published in The New York Times.
Her mother, the former Margaret Seligman, was an educator and renowned hostess whose circle of friends included Eleanor Roosevelt, George Gershwin, and Arturo Toscanini, according to Mrs. Kahn’s book. Margaret died in a car accident in 1954 in New York while returning from a visit with Adlai Stevenson.
Mrs. Kahn’s paternal grandfather was Adolph Lewisohn, a German Jewish immigrant who came to America as a teenager and invested in early copper mining along with his brothers. He was a philanthropist who sought to make the arts more affordable to all and also was involved in prison reforms.
Mrs. Kahn and her husband, Dr. Ernest Kahn, who was a psychoanalyst in Cambridge, had three children. He died in 2001.
In addition to her daughter Sarah, Mrs. Kahn leaves her daughter Deborah of Belmont; her son, Daniel of Seekonk; and five grandchildren.
A memorial gathering will be held at noon on Saturday at the Atrium School in Watertown. A private burial has been held in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Filmmaker Alexandra Anthony spent a year documenting life at the Atrium School for her 2000 movie “Atrium Voices.” She said Mrs. Kahn funded the film and gave her carte blanche to create.
“She was extraordinary — her profound understanding of human nature, her respect for every person’s unique abilities, her infectious enthusiasm for life, her curiosity about the world, her openness to new ideas, but above all, the unconditional love she radiated,” said Anthony, who wound up involving the entire Atrium community in the project.
“What an honor and pure joy it was to have had Ginny in our lives,” Anthony added. “She brought out the best in all of us.”J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.