2018-08-31 / Front Page

High school honor given, 75 years after graduation

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Mildred Dexter Mildred Dexter SOUTH PORTLAND — More than 75 years after getting her diploma, a South Portland High School graduate denied an Honor Part at commencement solely for temerity of having been born a girl, has finally, formally, been recognized by the board of education.

Now just weeks from her 95th birthday and residing at an assisted living home in

Virginia, Mildred

Truland (now Mildred Dexter) placed eighth in the class of 1943, with a grade point average of 92.9. It was a different world back then, with a world at war and South Portland transformed almost overnight into an industrial machine, churning out “liberty ships” by the score to help supply troops.

Back then, what is now Mahoney Middle School, was still the city’s high schoo, and that’s where Dexter, a resident of Thornton Heights, marched to pomp and circumstance. But there was a certain indignity in Dexter’s diploma, handed out as one of many, as if she was just another face in a mortar-capped crowd.

Mildred (Truland) Dexter, front row center, stands amid the South Portland Class of 1943, having finished eighth in her class, but with her rightful Honor Part awarded to a boy with a lower grade point average, due to a policy in place at the time which doled out graduation honors to an equal number of boys and girls. On Monday, the school board finally recognized her accomplishment. (Courtesy photo) Mildred (Truland) Dexter, front row center, stands amid the South Portland Class of 1943, having finished eighth in her class, but with her rightful Honor Part awarded to a boy with a lower grade point average, due to a policy in place at the time which doled out graduation honors to an equal number of boys and girls. On Monday, the school board finally recognized her accomplishment. (Courtesy photo) That’s because of another difference of that era.

Today, the school department annually recognizes its Top10 scholars as part of graduation. But according to Superintendent Ken Kunin, school policy in the 1940s demanded that Honor Parts be doled out to an equal number of boys and girls. In addition to the valedictorian and salutatorian, special recognition was granted at commencement to three boys and three girls. That being the case, recognition of Dexter’s accomplishment, which rightfully should have earned her the eighth and final Honor Part, went to a boy with a lower grade point average (91.8), while she got none.

“It hurt quite a lot at the time,” Dexter said by telephone Tuesday, Aug. 28. “I remember my father went down to the school and tried to fight for me with the principal and the board. But it didn’t do any good. He didn’t get anywhere. They wouldn’t change their mind.”

But times change.

In an Aug. 12 letter to Dexter, Kunin said he wasn’t sure exactly when policy evolved on how Honor Parts are awarded. Even so, he took the opportunity to right that long-ago wrong.

“In any of the past 30 years, had you been eighth in the class you would have been recognized as a South Portland High School Top Scholar,” Kunin wrote. “Therefore, I am using my authority as superintendent to award you this letter as an ‘Honorary Top Scholar’ of South Portland High School.”

The school board endorsed that decision at its Monday, Aug. 27 meeting.

Dexter could not make the trip to South Portland to accept the honor, but her niece, Millie Pelletier, who lives in the old family homestead, accepted on her behalf.

It was Pelletier who wrote to Kunin to request the belated recognition for her aunt.

Dexter, she said, went on to a 30-year career in nursing, leaving home at 17 to attend Carney Hospital’s School of Nursing in Boston. Afterward, while serving at the Marine Hospital in Brighton, Massachusetts, Dexter went on her first date with James Dexter, a young veteran in her care, who had been wounded in World War II. It was not just a first date with her future husband, it was her first date ever, and also her last.

“I was raised Catholic and very strict,” Dexter recalled. “I had never been on a date before. I was afraid of it. I didn’t even know what it was. But I asked the head nurse if she thought he was all right, and she said, yes, he was a fine young man. And he was. He was a wonderful husband.”

It was an unpopular union back home in Maine. Back then, a woman having a career of any kind was viewed with some degree of skepticism. Of course, women entered the workplace as a necessity of war, but after the Allied victory, life was expected to return to normal, meaning a world in which the best way for a woman to advance herself in society was through a well-placed marriage.

“My mother had a fit because she wanted me to marry a doctor or a lawyer and I married just a common man, but we were very happy, always,” Dexter said.

The young bride would never return home, except for the occasional family visit, however. For most of her subsequent career, Dexter worked at Highland Hospital in Rochester, New York, rising to charge nurse of its Hall 2 nursery staff, where she primarily cared for newborns.

At her retirement, Dexter was celebrated for her long service, a newsletter article declaring “the place falls apart” whenever she was not there. But, Dexter was well-known for her compassion as well as her leadership. Again, it was a different age, and it was not uncommon then for even nurses to shun babies born with significant birth defects. One child, Dexter recalled, had been born with half a brain. It only lived four days, but in that time, Dexter was the only nurse willing to hold the baby.

“It was still a human being and just wanted love,” she explained. “And I felt like that was why I had been put there, to provide the only love it would ever know.”

“I did love my job so much,” Dexter said. “I enjoyed caring for people, especially the premies. I wanted to have six children myself, but God did not will that for me. I only had one. But I do have four greatgrandchildren, which is very nice. But my job, I really did not want to give it up when it came time to retire.”

Instructed by the nuns of St. John’s Church to “serve God first,” Dexter went her entire career never thinking to ask for a raise. It was only toward the very end of her working life, when told she deserved one, that Dexter got her only salary hike ever, an extra 5 cents per hour.

But before the nuns got ahold of her, Dexter grew up a rough-andtumble tomboy, barrelrolling through Thornton Heights. It was not at all uncommon for her father to have to pull Dexter off of some boy, who, having aggrieved her in some way, she was in the process of actively pummeling into submission. And that may be at least partly why it hurt so much, being told to step aside at graduation in favor of a boy.

Although lauded at the end of her career, Dexter never did forgot the slight done to her by South Portland High School. But she also never spoke of it. Accepting the tribulations of life with grace and dignity was just how it was done for those in the Greatest Generation.

That Dexter had performed as well as she had in school was remarkable in itself, as she had every excuse to slack off in her studies. Raised during the Great Depression, Dexter had just three outfits growing up – her school dress, one dress for more formal occasions, and one for everyday wear. Her father, a railroad engineer by trade, was laid off 17 times in 18 years courtesy of a floundering economy, and Dexter worked two jobs all through high school to help support her family and keep food on the table.

It was only recently, when Pelletier was going through a rough patch – still embroiled in a federal lawsuit over workplace bullying and gender discrimination – that Dexter shared her story.

“She never even told the story to her own daughter,” Pelletier said. “But she said to me, ‘I know exactly how you feel. I know just what it’s like to be overlooked for something you’ve earned.’

“She told me, ‘You break that glass ceiling, honey, all the way to Washington, D.C.’”

Pelletier was named for her aunt, and said she always hated her name growing up.

“But I’ve grown into it now and I am so proud to be named after such a great woman and such a wonderful role model,” she said. “This recognition probably means even more for me than it does for her.”

That may be, but Dexter said she’s thankful to finally, at long last, be afforded the recognition she so duly earned.

“It’s quite a thing,” she said. “Yes, I think it’s quite nice.”

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