Jan. 4, 2019
Pegi Young, a late-blossoming folk-rock musician who was a founder of a school for children with severe physical and speech impairments, like her son from her marriage to the singer-songwriter Neil Young, a performer at its many star-studded benefit concerts, died on Tuesday in Mountain View, Calif. She was 66.
Her brother Paul Morton said the cause was cancer.
By the early 1980s, Ms. Young had grown frustrated with the special education programs available for her son, Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy in 1978. She began thinking about starting a school to better address his needs and those of other children who had largely lost the ability to speak.
That inspiration led in 1987 to the Bridge School, an innovative institution in Hillsborough, Calif., that has since achieved global reach. Ms. Young founded it with the speech and language pathologist Marilyn Buzolich and Jim Forderer, who had adopted many special-needs children.
At the school, about 17 miles south of San Francisco, children from ages 3 to 12 use augmentative and alternative communication techniques, including speech generators and manual communication boards, to help them articulate their thoughts and prepare to complete their educations in their local school districts.
Vicki R. Casella, the executive director, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Young had a “determination to ensure that children like Ben have the opportunity to become active participants in their communities.”
Dr. Buzolich added that Ms. Young’s experience as the parent of a child with special needs had been critical to the school.
“Professionals often diss parental input, but the parent sees the whole child,” Dr. Buzolich said by telephone. “You can imagine the parents at the Bridge School saying to themselves, ‘She understands me, she knows what it’s like, she’s been there.’ ”
The school runs an international teacher training program; implements its curriculum in developing countries; organizes conferences; and conducts research to measure the effectiveness of its educational strategies.
“I take a tremendous amount of satisfaction with the knowledge that we’re changing lives for the better,” Ms. Young said in 2017 in an interview with AXS, a ticketing website. “It’s truly having a global impact.”
The annual benefit concerts have been the source of much of the school’s funding. Over three decades, headliners have included Mr. Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Emmylou Harris, Pearl Jam, the Who, Lucinda Williams and Metallica. The last concert was in 2016.
Margaret Mary Morton was born on Dec. 1, 1952, in San Mateo, Calif. Her father, Thomas, was an investment manager. Her mother, Margaret Jean (Foley) Morton, was a homemaker and a hospital auxiliary volunteer.
Pegi wrote poetry in high school and played guitar for pleasure, but she did not consider a career in music. She attended community colleges in Northern California but did not graduate.
When she met Mr. Young, in 1974, she was working as a waitress near his ranch and living in a tepee with her dog. In his 1992 song “Unknown Legend,” Mr. Young sang, “She used to work in a diner / Never saw a woman look finer / I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.” They married in 1978.
She occasionally sang backup for Mr. Young, most notably at the 1994 Academy Awards telecast, when he sang his Oscar-nominated song, “Philadelphia.” But it was not until she was in her 50s that she recorded her first album, “Pegi Young” (2007). She followed it with four more.
The most recent, “Raw” (2017) — credited, like the previous two, to Pegi Young and the Survivors — was in response to her divorce from Mr. Young in 2014. He had begun a relationship with the actress Daryl Hannah, and they married last year.
In one song, “Why,” Ms. Young sings: “Why’d you have to ruin my life? Why’d you have to be so mean? Why’d you have to tell me such lies? Why not be straight with me?”
After the album’s release, Ms. Young said on NPR that she hoped the songs could help people get through difficult life passages.
“It could be, you know, late-in-life divorce,” she said. “It could be death.” She added, “Loss and heartbreak are pretty universal.”
In his review of “Raw” in Glide magazine, Lee Zimmerman wrote, “With songwriting assistance from guitarist Kelvin Holly and Spooner Oldham, Young creates a stunning story line, one that taps into feelings that are both bitter and unbridled.”
In addition to her son and her brother Paul, Ms. Young is survived by her daughter, Amber Jean Young; her stepson, Zeke Young; two grandchildren; her sisters, Sally Morton and Judith Davidson; two other brothers, Michael and Brian Morton; her stepsister, Mary Ann Wolkomir; and her stepbrother, Kevin Kleczka.
Although she had found her way in music, Ms. Young nonetheless viewed the Bridge School as her life’s work.
“Three or four of our students now have graduated from college,” she told Speakers in Code, a music website, in 2016, “and I’ve been to every one of their graduations with huge pride of a mother hen for seeing the success that these students have enjoyed — that once they have left Bridge, there is continuum of success.”
Ben Young became a successful organic egg farmer.
“You know when you buy eggs in a grocery store, and even when you buy them from a good organic source, you notice the yolks are kind of pale?” she said with pride. “Ben’s eggs are nuclear orange.”