WEST ORANGE, NJ — Very few people can truly say that they love what they do for a living. Even those with multimillion-dollar salaries complain about the long hours and other aggravations. But Marie DeMaio is a different story. The Washington Elementary School principal is in her milestone 55th year as an educator and has no plans to retire any time soon. After all, doing so would mean giving up her life’s passion.
“I love what I do,” DeMaio told the West Orange Chronicle in an Oct. 14 interview. “I like working with the students and teachers and parents.”
DeMaio’s zeal for education dates back to her own days as a student. She recalled that she always relished going to school, and had numerous teachers she admired. In fact, she said it was her goal to become just like them.
So unlike many college students, DeMaio knew exactly what she wanted to do upon entering Kean University. She soon made her plans a reality, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education and speech in 1962. In September that year she started working as a second-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, where she lived out her dream of leading a classroom for the next 23 years.
And just as she had been influenced by her own educators, DeMaio said she was happy to help her own students thrive.
“I’ve always been very proud of what my students have accomplished as they have gone through the grades and then gone on to middle school and high school and college,” DeMaio said. “I have many students who have become lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses, business people. (Elementary education) is the foundation, and then they move up. That’s so important.”
But as much as she loved teaching, DeMaio decided to take on the job of principal in 1985 following the retirement of her predecessor, Don Lanigan. She certainly had the experience to do so, having served as acting principal following Lanigan’s heart attack and then assisting him when he returned. By that point, she had also earned master’s degrees in both speech and administration and supervision.
Still, DeMaio admitted that she missed working directly with students in the classroom when she started at the administrative level. In time though, she realized that being principal allowed her to continue being around her beloved pupils while developing programs to help them succeed. She said she also has appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with the school’s teachers to provide the children with the best possible educational experience. Parents are an asset to that end as well, she said.
“We have a community that’s very involved and interested in the schools and the success of our students,” DeMaio said.
Part of that engagement surely stems from the Partners for Learning program, which DeMaio introduced to Washington shortly after becoming principal, as a way to encourage parents to play a larger role in their children’s education. The initiative, which is still going strong, invites guest speakers to talk to parents about topics that have ranged from pursuing college to health to safety. Additionally, Partners for Learning has produced parent handbooks and district personnel have also presented programs on math and language arts.
Partners for Learning was not the only initiative started by DeMaio, though. Most recently, Washington held a Read Across America event in which local figures read stories in classrooms. The school also hosted noted children’s author Dan Gutman, and has organized international nights so students and parents can celebrate the diverse cultures that make up the community.
Yet DeMaio’s greatest legacy is perhaps the effect she has had on those who have known her during her more than half century in education. This is certainly the case for Linda Perna, a kindergarten teacher who has worked under DeMaio for the past 22 years. Perna described her boss as both a great leader and a wonderful woman, the kind always willing to drop everything she is doing to listen to someone’s concerns. Washington is DeMaio’s “home away from home,” the teacher said, and she definitely has had a “powerful impact” on the many people who have passed through it.
“I just wish she would spend another 50 years at our school,” Perna told the Chronicle in an Oct. 15 phone interview. “It would be nice for everybody involved. She’s just a great person.”
Perna is so close to DeMaio that she considers her part of her family. Perhaps because DeMaio was her husband’s favorite teacher — he even told Perna about her the first time they met, a full 15 years before Perna ever came into contact with DeMaio. But DeMaio is also a hugely supportive presence in her own life, Perna said, recounting how DeMaio has always been able to empathize with any pressures Perna experiences as a teacher since the principal was once a teacher herself. Perna added that her boss has also provided pivotal encouragement to her ideas for extracurricular activities, inspiring Perna to launch programs such as the Student Council and the annual Souper Bowl Drive.
“We probably wouldn’t do as much as we do if it weren’t for her,” Perna said.
Roosevelt Middle School English teacher Jay Wecht never had the opportunity to work in the same building as DeMaio, but said he has had the honor of calling her a friend for more than 20 years. In that time, Wecht joked that DeMaio has only been wrong once — and that was about what was on a lunch menu two decades ago. But he said that just goes to show what a natural ability she has to educate young lives.
West Orange has been “blessed” to have DeMaio for more than 50 years, Wecht said. When she eventually does retire, he said, the school district will be hard-pressed to find anyone who can live up to the standard she set.
“I can’t think of anybody who could represent the schools better than Marie DeMaio,” Wecht told the Chronicle in an interview last month. “I think she was born to be an educator. Everybody has their talents. Hers is to be a positive influence on children.”
One of those children was Mayor Robert Parisi, who was in DeMaio’s second-grade class when he was a boy. Parisi told the Chronicle that he still has fond memories of his former teacher. But he developed a whole new respect for her as an adult while working with her on school projects. The mayor said it is clear that DeMaio is an educator who puts her students first, always trying to make their lives better.
Her continued commitment to the township’s schools speaks to the type of person she is, Parisi said.
“If we all imagined in our minds what the quintessential teacher would be — caring, compassionate, enthusiastic — I think all those things would describe Ms. DeMaio,” Parisi said in a phone interview last month. “She has done what not a lot of people in any profession could do, and that’s stand (nearly) six decades and still achieve the success today that she did in the ’60s when she came to Washington School. She is one in a lifetime.”
The magnitude of the principal’s longevity has not been lost on community members. Assembly members John McKeon and Mila Jasey and State Senator Richard Codey — who represent West Orange in the New Jersey Legislature — issued a proclamation during the summer commending the longtime educator for all her years serving local children. McKeon, who got to know DeMaio during his time as the township’s mayor, said she is certainly deserving of the recognition.
“She’s a legend,” McKeon told the Chronicle in a phone interview last month. “(There are) just about three generations of students who have been impacted by her professional life. So she’s in that pantheon (with those) who have just been synonymous with education in our town.”
The West Orange Scholarship Fund also paid tribute to DeMaio by establishing a perpetual scholarship in her name and hosting a May 25 ceremony in her honor. According to fund treasurer Jim Quinn, that event raised a total of $12,000 — $10,000 for the scholarship and $2,000 for a future Washington School project. Additionally, Quinn said it attracted close to 200 people who have all been touched by DeMaio’s influence at some point in their lives. It was overwhelming to see such support, he said, but it was more than fitting considering all the years she has spent providing a “warm” and “caring” environment for West Orange children.
DeMaio said she felt honored to receive such attention and is happy to be helping students for years to come through her namesake scholarship. As for what her own future holds, the veteran principal said she is sure that she will retire someday, though she does not know when that day will come. In the meantime, she plans to continue doing what she has loved for the past 55 years — making a difference in people’s lives through education.