Rita Mulholland wanted to make a difference in the lives of her students at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where she was a professor who taught special-education teachers.

One way she did that was by bringing three graduate students with her to Cochin, India, where Mulholland also wanted to make a difference in the lives of special-ed students in an orphanage. The orphans had been "abandoned or sold by their parents, abused or found as child laborers," The Stockton Times reported in 2012.

And to go to India - a trip Mulholland made twice before she died last month, at 65, of brain cancer - she had to leave her dogs at home in Egg Harbor Township. Those were the dogs she rescued from a shelter, even though two were blind and one was deaf.

The professor retired from Stockton in 2012, largely so she could travel more to the Indian orphanage.

To American ears, all that talk of saving poor kids in India naturally brings up images of Mother Teresa.

But at Stockton, Claudine Keenan, the education dean, said any kind of saintly references to Mulholland would likely draw laughs on the campus - among other loud, strong reactions.

"She was a tall, commanding woman who ... took no guff, took no nonsense from anybody," Keenan said. "She wasn't a warm-fuzzy type. ... But she believed very strongly that those children needed an advocate like her."

Her own family had no trouble seeing her in that description.

"She was probably the bossiest person you'd ever meet," agreed a laughing younger sister, Jackie Mulholland, of Haddon Township. Rita was the third child and oldest girl in a family of seven kids who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, sometimes vacationing in Wildwood.

"We used to call her 'little mommy,'" added her sister, who moved into Rita's home to care for her as she died.

Rita, a National Guard veteran, was only diagnosed with cancer in October. Her older brother, Bob Mulholland, of Chico, Calif., said she caught herself stumbling over words - which just was not her. Tests revealed advanced tumors in her brain.

Other visitors near the end included Stockton colleagues and students, among them Jordan Conover, Laura DaGrossa and Stephanie Lancaster - the grad students from the India trip.

Conover lives in Upper Township and teaches special ed in Northfield. She took as many of Rita's classes as she could - and sought her advice on any education question she had.

"I know people thought she was tough, but I wish more of them could've gotten to know her on a personal level," Conover said.

If so, she thinks they'd understand the teacher she knew, and admired - the one who wasn't at all afraid to make a difference.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237