By Jane Rieker
Updated May 05, 1980 12:00 PM

To students at the private Carrollton School in the exclusive Miami suburb of Coconut Grove, Fla., contemporary history is the title of a course. To their white-haired instructor, Margaret Budenz, it has been the theme of her extraordinary life. “From the standpoint of social justice,” Budenz tells her classes, “one of my goals is helping you learn to vote intelligently. You will not necessarily need to go on a picket line.” She smiles for a moment over an irony that her pupils are barely aware of. She was once a dedicated Communist. Her husband, the late Louis Budenz, was editor of the Daily Worker, and she spent much of her youth as a radical agitator. Today, a devout Catholic at a school run by Sacred Heart nuns, she has lost none of her appetite for challenging conventional wisdom. “I’m trying to get students to think intelligently, not brainwash them,” she says. “I am very sensitive to brainwashing. The 20th century is one of wars and revolutions. I want my students to look critically at all sides and all options, as they must if we hope for any kind of peaceful life in the future.”

Budenz herself has always led the examined life, often with disruptive personal consequences. As Margaret Rodgers, she was born into a Republican, Protestant, working-class family. Her father, a carpenter, inspected schools for the Pittsburgh Board of Education; her mother later took in boarders to help pay the rent. On scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, Margaret recalls, “I learned there was such a thing as a social conscience and set about developing one of my own.” After graduation she became a social worker and joined the leftist Conference for Progressive Labor Action. She was soon involved with its executive secretary, Budenz, a divorced fallen-away Catholic 17 years her senior who went around with his clothing threadbare and his hair unkempt. (Her first gift to him was a new pair of shoelaces.) Joining him on his travels to organize the unemployed, she stopped with him one night at a tourist home. “This is what we always remembered as our wedding night—without bell, book or candle—the first time we made love,” she wrote later. Eventually three of their four daughters would be born out of wedlock.

Though the Budenzes believed the New Deal was merely a palliative response to the Depression, they resisted becoming card-carrying Communists until 1935. Then the party appealed for all men and women of goodwill to join in the fight against fascism. Afterward her husband was assigned to edit the Worker, while Margaret hosted cell meetings and reviewed articles for party periodicals. Though shaken by the Moscow purge trials and the duplicity of the Hitler-Stalin pact, she and Louis remained loyal Communists for a decade. Then came World War II’s disheartening aftermath. “We saw Stalin begin to break his promises regarding Poland and other countries,” says Margaret. “We knew the Cold War had begun. This was the final disillusionment.”

Bereft of the political belief that had sustained him, Budenz returned passionately to the church and Margaret went with him. Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, once a public adversary of her husband’s, personally instructed her in the faith, baptized her three girls and married the couple in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As a symbol of wholehearted commitment to Catholic doctrine, Margaret tossed her diaphragm into a trashcan at Grand Central Terminal. A fourth daughter, Joanna, was born 13 months later.

Budenz wrote, lectured and taught until chronic heart problems forced him to retire in 1957. Margaret then began teaching, first at a Catholic high school in New York City and later at Elmhurst Academy in Portsmouth, R.I., where Jane Curtin of Saturday Night Live was one of her students. After Louis’ death in 1972, she moved to Carrollton, where daughter Joanna, now 33, became director of admissions last year. The oldest Budenz daughter, Julia, 45, is a published poet and a classics researcher at Harvard; Jo, 43, is the mother of three sons and teaches remedial reading in Los Altos, Calif.; Justine, 37, writes and manages a rare book shop in London.

Now 71, Margaret is working toward her Ph.D. from Providence College. “It may be the year 2000 before I get it,” she says, “but I don’t expect to be caught without something to do. Maybe someplace in the future I will write on the women’s movement, education, religion and how we are programmed to become what society expects us to be—the age 65 thing and all. I’m really too rebellious to quit.”