With tough love and a side of Lebanese cuisine, Rose Fidel once calculated that she worked with 44,000 students across four decades in Santa Fe schools. Relatives and former pupils don’t dispute that estimate from the math teacher turned principal, who died on Christmas Day at 92.
“She was a great educator but we were all afraid of her,” said Santa Fe High Principal Carl Marano, who graduated from the school in 1989 when Fidel was principal. “Afraid in a good way. She ran a structured school and you felt safe with her in charge.
“My [former] classmates and I still talk about her.”
Fidel was born two hours before her identical twin sister Correen in May 1927 in the family home on Washington Avenue to Joe and Rose Fidel, who immigrated to Santa Fe from Lebanon a few years earlier.
After graduating from the now-defunct Loretto Academy in 1944, the younger Rose Fidel earned a bachelor’s degree from the former Loretto Heights College in Denver and a master’s from the University of New Mexico. She started her teaching career at the now-defunct St. Francis Parochial School in 1952.
Then in 1954, Fidel began a 38-year career in Santa Fe Public Schools that started as a middle school math teacher, included 17 years as principal at DeVargas Middle School and concluded after six years as principal at Santa Fe High in 1992.
According to district officials at the time, Fidel was the first female principal of Santa Fe High. In that role, she was a disciplinarian dedicated to instilling work ethics.
“No fighting. No disrespect. No slacking off. That’s how she was. She just wanted kids to learn not to waste their lives. I heard it everyday — if you’re not working hard, you’re not working,” said William Merhege, Fidel’s nephew, who grew up in the same house but attended St. Michael’s. “She wasn’t cruel. It was all done out of love.”
Over the past week, dozens of former students posted on social media about Fidel’s impact. Most included sentiment along the lines of tough but fair. One commenter said Fidel taught three generations of her family. Another, Victor Romero, thanked his former principal for introducing him to tabbouleh, a Lebanese salad of chopped parsley and bulgur.
“Growing up here, you knew of her for so long,” said Romero, who graduated from Santa Fe High in 1991. “She was an icon of sorts.”
Peter Graham, a science teacher in Santa Fe Public Schools since 1987 who worked for Fidel, said her expectations were always clear.
“You pretty much knew where you stood with her, which was great,” Graham said. “If you didn’t do your job, she would let you know. One time a few teachers were politicking and lobbying to become department chair, she laid down the law pretty quick and chose for us.”
Sister-in-law Dolores Fidel, a former nurse at Santa Fe High, said Rose Fidel didn’t yell or attempt to intimidate. She commanded respect by exuding confidence.
“It wasn’t her size or any sort of look she could give, it was just that you knew when you met her that this was somebody who was sure of herself,” Dolores Fidel said. “And while the kids really were intimidated by her, once they knew her, they wanted to do right by her. I think kids wanted to meet her expectations.”
After her retirement in 1992, relatives said Rose Fidel took to fishing on Northern New Mexico’s lakes and began volunteering at the chapel at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.
And her impact on Santa Fe classrooms is still being felt.
“I’m fortunate to have educators like Mrs. Fidel to shape me,” Marano said. “It’s because of educators like her that I wanted to give back through a career in education. And I know I’m not alone. She had an impact on countless kids in Santa Fe.”