Ann B. Mathias, the widow of former U.S. senator Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, spoke poignantly about her struggle with dyslexia and became board chairman of the Lab School of Washington, an institution for learning-disabled children.

Mrs. Mathias, 83, who lived in Chevy Chase, died Feb. 19 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington of complications from pneumonia. The death was confirmed by her son Robert Mathias.

Mrs. Mathias spent much of her life close to power. Born Ann Hickling Bradford, she was a Boston Brahmin. Her father, Robert F. Bradford, was Massachusetts governor in the late 1940s. Her husband, a liberal Republican, entered Maryland politics in the 1950s and then was in the U.S. House before serving in the Senate from 1969 to 1987. He died in 2010 after 51 years of marriage.

Despite being an active campaigner for her husband, Mrs. Mathias said she had a learning disability that caused her to struggle with reading, writing, memorization and public speaking.

She told People magazine in 1983 that as a student she was an “academic disaster” in private school in Cambridge, Mass., and that memories of that era were agonizing. The understanding of learning disabilities was essentially nonexistent.

In math class, she said, “I would sit there cringing because I couldn’t remember sequentially much more than the first two steps in any exercise. In front of my peers, I would always come up with the wrong answer or nothing. I couldn’t compete.”

Studying poetry in eighth grade was also a crushing experience. “I would work all evening and go to sleep memorizing, only to wake up in the morning and not be able to recall one line,” she told People. “None of the teachers believed me. I was accused again and again of not doing my homework. It was terribly painful.”

She said she cheated on a Latin test out of desperation to please her parents.

One of her teachers, who served on the Vassar College board, was sympathetic and smoothed her entry to what was then an elite all-women’s school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her grades improved markedly under a college English teacher who took the time to coach her in new ways of memorizing information.

But after graduation in 1951, she again was thrown into a less-than-understanding environment when she found work at the CIA in a job that involved holding briefings with officials.

She left the agency to marry Charles Mathias, a rising politician. During his campaigns, she would walk for miles knocking on doors. She told People that her “confusion with directions” led her to lose her car many times.

Over the years, she was an elementary school substitute teacher at various private schools and was a special assistant to the director of the Maryland State Department of Education in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, she became involved with the experimental Lab School of Washington, which sometimes used music and dance to help children express themselves in what would otherwise be a struggle in a traditional classroom setting.

She was a past board member of the grant-making National Home Library Foundation, the Visiting Nurse Association of Washington and the private St. Albans School. She was honored by the Greater Washington Urban League for her volunteer work with a literacy program for troubled youths in the District.

Survivors include two sons, Charles Mathias and Robert Mathias, both of Washington; two brothers; and two granddaughters. 

— Adam Bernstein