Theresa Anne Cleary was born on December 12, 1935 in Shanghai, China. She attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received a B.S. in Psychology in 1958. She proceeded to the University of Minnesota for her M.A. in Developmental Psychology and completed her Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Illinois in 1964. Cleary served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1966 to1972. In 1971, she became the Executive director of Examinations for The College Board in New York City. She remained with The College Board until 1978, serving as chief of its programming services division, vice president of planning and research, and as a research consultant, respectively.
In 1979, Cleary was appointed director of Evaluation and Examinations Service and Professor of Educational Measurement and Statistics at the University of Iowa. She was later named Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs. Throughout the 1980s, Cleary was active in the American Educational Research Association, where she served as vice president from 1982 to 1984. In addition, she served as president of the American Psychological Association from 1984 to 1985 and from 1986 to 1987. In 1983, Cleary's father Frank Cleary was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and moved to Iowa City from Canada to be under her care. T. Anne Cleary was among the six shooting victims of disgruntled University of Iowa graduate student, Gang Lu on November 1, 1991. She died the following day at age 56.