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Photograph of Marial Harper - a woman with black pulled back hair, she is wearing a blue sweater and typing on a computer keyboard

Dembitzki Family

New Bedford educator Marial Harper (1934-2016) positively impacted numerous lives at New Bedford High School and was the first woman and minority to be appointed a Housemaster there. Of Mashpee Wampanoag and Cape Verdean descent, she became active with the Mashpee Wampanoag as a member of its Council of Elders in her retirement.

New Bedford educator Marial Harper (1934-2016) impacted the lives of students and other educators through a long and dedicated career at New Bedford High School as classroom teacher and administrator. She was the first woman and first minority to be appointed Housemaster of New Bedford High School. Marial Marie Souza was born in New Bedford on August 8, 1934, to Alma, a Mashpee Wampanoag, and Louis, a Cape Verdean businessman, owner of Souza’s Washing Machine Service. This strong and proud heritage would become an important part of the character of the woman that became Marial Harper, the educator.

Marial graduated from New Bedford High School in 1952. After spending some time in the private business sector in the city, she changed her direction and began her academic career, first at Boston University where she earned her degree in business in 1960, then at Rhode Island College for her master’s in administration.

When she began her career teaching in the Business Department at New Bedford High School, she quickly became known by both students and staff as an excellent instructor. More importantly, she demonstrated sincere compassion for others and had a talent for connecting with all of those with whom she came into contact. Her smile was given to all and she did not hesitate to laugh at herself as well. However, beyond those most obvious connections with her students and her ability to influence them, a much deeper impact was being experienced by a special group of students at the school that became more obvious with time and their final confessions. The group was made up with the young men and women of color who were generally unaccustomed to seeing a minority female educator at the high school.

Over the decades many of these individuals followed her into the field of education and later spoke to her and others of the immense impact her presence at the school had created for them and others. One such example follows:

“I will always have a special place in my heart for Marial Harper beginning with my youth as an impressionable young student in the sixties when there were no female role models who looked like me, until I first saw Mal Harper. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen; she was absolutely gorgeous; and she had beautiful brown skin.

Her presence at the high school had a tremendous impact on me. I would walk all the way around the building, go up two flights of stairs and walk past her room – just so I could look at her, before I left to go home. I wanted to emulate the professionalism and class that she exuded. She was truly one of my very first role models. She allowed me to believe that perhaps I, too, could be a professional, an educator; and just maybe I, too, could be on the staff of NBHS.” – Dr. Marlene Roderiques

These sentiments expressed above are repeated by many other early students of the high school, who continue to express the confidence instilled in them after coming into contact with Marial Harper. This influence continued as her career took a turn to administration in 1973. At that time the high school had moved from County Street to its current location on Hathaway Boulevard and had switched to a “house” model where each of the four “houses” would be led by a “housemaster” who was under the leadership of the “headmaster.” In the 1973-74 school year, one of the house positions became available. The administration wisely selected Marial Harper as the leader of the Blue House, making her not only the first female Housemaster, but also the first minority. She held this position until her retirement in 1997. This appointment “opened the doors” for many minority parents who felt they would be able to speak with her and find a person who could relate to their issues. She worked closely with civic groups and organizations so that she could refer her students for help. During her 24 years as Housemaster, Marial became a positive force in the lives of thousands of students, parents, and hundreds of teachers and staff.

She was always approachable for staff members who all felt a warm relationship with her whether she entered their classroom or sat with them for a cup of coffee at lunch. At a time when New Bedford High School achieved the “Flag of Excellence” and outstanding praise from accreditation teams, she understood the importance of being a team player and gave her staff and students an opportunity to have input into the daily running of the house.

Following her retirement, she tapped into the heritages of her parents. Marial became active in the Mashpee Wampanoag as a member of its Council of Elders where she studied her native Wampanoag language and the art of creating Wampanoag jewelry. Her home reflected her Wampanoag and Cape Verdean heritage through paintings and photos of the islands and her descendants.

Her life reflected her parents’ influences. Her mother’s love and caring for her grandchildren instilled in Marial a nurturing toward her own children and grandchildren. The strong work ethic of her father was a model for her own. The extreme pride both parents held for their personal heritage came through to shape Marial Harper, who would go on to impact so many young people.

Her two children were her biggest fans and each highlighted portions of her personality and strengths. Her son Treg stated, “Her ability to connect with people young and old and her reputation for honest compassion led to well-deserved advancement in the public school system.” Her daughter Aurienne recalled her mother’s devotion to her family and friends. She considered her mother her best friend and closest confidant. The two were inseparable. Aurienne followed her mother’s footsteps and is currently an educator in the New Bedford public school system.

Mal was married to Judge Ronald D. Harper for over 50 years. They spent many days travelling to visit their grandchildren residing in other states or attending the many activities of the two grandchildren who lived locally. In addition to attending nearly every musical performance and sporting event of her two children and six grandchildren, she found time to bake the “goodies” for their school parties or whip up an outfit needed for school events.

She was loyal to her friends who came from a very wide variety of backgrounds and made time for all of them whether she was working at the high school or after her retirement between the activities of her grandchildren. There were trips to upstate New York to visit an elderly retiree and close friend, Ida, and a fun trip to Las Vegas with two longtime school friends, and hilarious trips to Market Basket with another close friend. In short, “Mal” was a fan and cheerleader for all who had the privilege of knowing her.

She passed on August 27, 2016 after having just visited with a former student and his wife. She had maintained a close relationship with them over the many years since the days at the “old” New Bedford High School on County Street.

In tribute, some of her ashes were placed at the cemetery of the Old Indian Meeting House, the oldest Native American church in the eastern United States, in Mashpee.

Family and friends of Marial M. Harper

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  • Family and friends of Marial M. Harper
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