Adored borough teacher leaves lasting legacy

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MaryEllen Marques reads to her class in August 2010. The longtime teacher died July 21 at age 51 of cancer. –CONTRIBUTED BY NANCY SASSO JANIS
NAUGATUCK — MaryEllen Marques, a popular kindergarten teacher at Maple Hill Elementary School, died July 21 of cancer at age 51.

Her death has inspired hundreds of tributes, online and on paper, from parents, former students and colleagues in the borough school system. Marques’s family is setting up a charity fund in her name to buy supplies for borough schools and give college scholarships to Maple Hill alumni who want to go into education, said Marques’s 25-year-old daughter, Lauren.

“I honestly feel that tomorrow at the church is going to be standing room only,” Lauren Marques said Wednesday prior to funeral services. “It’s that huge.”

MaryEllen Marques was in her 23rd year of teaching in borough schools when she was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer over Christmas break. She had set up her classroom to return after the new year, but she never came back, her daughter said.

“It was very aggressive and it was kind of quick,” Lauren Marques said.

MaryEllen Marques taught kindergarten at Maple Hill since the building opened in 1989, and before that she taught at Cross Street Elementary School, which is now an intermediate school. At one point she took a break from kindergarten to teach fourth grade for a few years, her daughter said.

She was raised in Naugatuck, where she lived on Windview Drive with her husband, Julio Marques Jr. In addition to Lauren, she had a 21-year-old son, Christopher.

Jodie Ruccio, a first-grade teacher at Maple Hill, taught with Marques for nine years. Students would come to Ruccio’s class well behaved and ready to learn after having Marques as a kindergarten teacher, Ruccio said.

“The kids knew that she genuinely cared about them, and so they, in return, cared about her,” Ruccio said. “She never raised her voice. She never yelled … I think everyone’s going to try to take a piece of what she did and put it into their classroom this year.”

Marques smiled every day on the job and often played the piano and sang to her students, family and friends said. She was in charge of the school’s Sunshine Committee, which organizes gifts for holidays, Ruccio said.

“The word we used to describe her is sunshine,” Ruccio said.

Even as Marques battled cancer, she supported Ruccio through her husband’s death six months ago.

“She still would text me every day, see how I was doing, send happy thoughts and prayers my way,” Ruccio said.

Marques was devoted to her job, often staying until 6:30 p.m. to plan classes, Lauren Marques said. Her family has received an outpouring of support from former students and their parents, including Michelle Decerbo, a former Naugatuck High School basketball star who has been teaching for the past five years in Boston.

Decerbo sent Marques a card that said, “I want you to know that you inspired me to be who I am today.”

“She was that kind of person,” Lauren Marques said. “You couldn’t not remember her.”

Donations to the memorial fund can be sent to The MaryEllen Marques Education Fund, care of Naugatuck Savings Bank, 87 Church St., Naugatuck, CT 06770.