Helen Maley, the founder of the Early Childhood Program of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, died peacefully at her West Tisbury home Sunday of Alzheimer's disease, just two months before her 90th birthday.

Mrs. Maley devoted her long career to enriching the lives of young children. Despite failing health, Helen continued to enjoy the company of infants, toddlers and preschoolers at the Early Childhood playrooms until this spring. Her Wednesday visits to the center, and to the West Tisbury Public Library's toddler reading sessions on Mondays were the highlight of her weekly routine, bringing moments of contentment and joy to her life since her husband, Tom Maley, died in August, 2000.

Helen and Tom met while she attended Pembroke College in Providence, and Tom studied at Brown. They were madly in love, in an era when rules were surely meant to be broken. Helen's late brother, Walter Bonime, once recalled an incident when Helen was in the infirmary for some minor complaint, no visitors were allowed, and Tom climbed the exterior walls of the hospital to visit his sweetheart through the window.

Another rule 70 years ago forbade women college students from marrying. So Tom and Helen secretly eloped across the Rhode Island state line to Killingly, Conn., and were married by a justice of the peace who was much more interested in the World Series game blaring from his radio that Saturday, Oct. 7, 1933. The couple lived off-campus, in a rooming house run by a romantically discreet landlady, and they didn't tell anyone about their marriage for two years.

Helen completed post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago, and later at New York University, and the couple settled in Ossining, in Westchester County, N.Y., where Helen founded a neighborhood nursery school in the 1940s, and later the Yorktown Community Nursery School.

The concepts of Helen's preschools were considered radical at the time. Respect for children was the essence of her professional philosophy. Parents were required to take turns joining the children during school sessions, not just to assist with child care but to learn why preschoolers behave as they do, and to help the youngsters deal with this complicated world.

Even 50 years ago, Helen preferred being called by her first name, pointing out that respect is earned through mutual regard, not from formal titles. Helen asserted then and spent much of her professional life convincing people that small children need lots of practice playing together, and to grow their imaginations with simple raw materials, such as sand, water, paper, clay, crayons and plain wooden blocks, long before they are ready to tackle academic skills.

Helen Rececca Bonime was born in New York city on Sept. 22, 1913, the older daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Ellis Bonime. There she attended the progressive Dalton School and, according to childhood friend Lucy Korchmar, "she was a public spirited little thing" even at summer camp, "so set on winning the neatness award that she used to supervise my bed-making, and on occasion, would even make it herself."

Helen and Tom Maley become summer residents of West Tisbury in 1946, and moved here year-round in 1971. Tom, one of the artists who founded The Field Gallery, had wanted to create large outdoor figures in the meadow behind their home, and with a group of like-minded friends, built the landmark West Tisbury gallery.

Helen at the time was a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College in Boston, and in order to bring her work to the Vineyard, devised an off-campus program for Wheelock students in a rural setting. This innovative program brought students to the Island during the school year, where they immersed themselves in country life. The students shared living in a large rented house in Vineyard Haven. They worked in the public schools and preschools, made home visits, attended town meetings, walked the beaches, toured the lobster factory, and most of them for the first time did their own grocery shopping, budgeting and splitting the phone bill.

Her program became part of Martha's Vineyard Community Services when Helen began to offer weekend-long training seminars with prominent guest speakers for the students, teachers and parents on the Island, co-sponsored by Wheelock College and Community Services. During much of the 1970s, Helen organized and ran the annual conferences with a dozen nationally-known speakers, some of them housed in her guest rooms, then threw dinner parties in her home for 100 guests, with food she cooked and served herself.

Under Helen's leadership, Early Childhood Program grew to include the model daycare program currently at Community Services headquarters, as well as supervision of more than a dozen licensed family daycare homes, individual and group counseling, a program for neglected and abused children and their families, support groups for parents, after-school programs, a preschool summer camp, and a resource lending library. The program now serves more than 1,100 Island families each year, and is a program envied by early childhood providers nationwide.

A number of Helen's Wheelock students returned to the Island after graduating, to teach here, and/or marry Islanders. Many of them have stayed in close contact with their mentor. One of her former students is Debbie Milne, who was graduated in 1973, and who became director of Early Childhood Programs when Helen retired. Debbie remains director, and the good friend who kept Helen in touch with the youngsters at the center through these difficult months. Another is Martha Hubbell, the West Tisbury librarian who escorted Helen to the Monday toddler reading sessions. A third is Peter Huntington, who on summer days brought gaggles of youngsters to Helen's house to visit.

After she retired, Helen served on the Community Services board of directors, and became board chairman in 1989 and 1990. She volunteered at the Thrift Shop and continued to run parent education classes. In the early 1990s the Baumgartner/Maley Endowment Fund was established to further her vision for early childhood education.

Helen was named Senior Citizen of the Year by the Up-Island Council on Aging in 1996, was honored at the Martha's Vineyard Community Services annual meeting in 1997, was granted a Lifetime Achievement Award from Wheelock College in 1998 and was named Woman of the Year in 2002 by the Martha's Vineyard chapter of Zonta International.

She is survived by a daughter and son in law, Sandra and Dee Caruso of Los Angeles; son and daughter in law, Timothy and Eileen Maley of West Tisbury; a granddaughter, Chloe Maley of West Tisbury; a sister, Abby Lefranc of Paris and Normandy, and several nieces and nephews.

Interment will be private. A memorial service will be held at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury at 2 p.m. on Friday, July 18. Contributions in her memory may be donated to Early Childhood Programs of Martha's Vineyard Community Services.