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Shirley Napolitano ’39 and Marion Betar ’42

Two women, wearing glasses, with short dark hair

Shirley (Betar) Napolitano and Marion Betar

Sisters Shirley (Betar) Napolitano and Marion Betar were both beloved and influential teachers in the South Glens Falls School District, impacting thousands of students with humility and tenacity. Both were born in South Glens Falls to Harry J. Betar, Sr., and Irene Norman Betar. Their father had escaped Syria during the Armenian Holocaust, as did their mother’s parents.

Opportunity in upstate New York brought Harry and Irene Betar to South Glens Falls, where they seized the freedom the found in America and thrived on establishing a strong community by serving in countless civic capacities. This spirit of giving back was carried on by all of their children — Shirley, the oldest, Marion and then Harry J. Betar, Jr. With tonight’s ceremonies, all three will take their rightful place in the South High Bulldog Pride Hall of Fame.

Both Marion and Shirley worked tirelessly on events and activities to strengthen the community, and both worked privately and quietly, giving their time and resources to those in need.

Marion Betar graduated from South High in 1942, and started her teaching career in her hometown in 1946, teaching fourth grade in the Spring Street School. After two years there, she moved on to the Bluebird School, now the administrative center. In 1955, she moved to the newly opened Moreau Elementary School, where she continued to teach grades 4, 5 and 6 until her retirement in 1983.

Throughout her 37-year teaching career, Marion showed a special love for science and history, and installed that love into many of her students. Well-respected and well liked by colleagues, students and parents, she was a quiet example that many would follow.

Honored several times as Teacher of the Year and honored with a lifetime membership in the Moreau Elementary School PTA, Marion was a whirlwind of activity. She co-authored science textbooks for elementary school students. She authored dozens of abstracts, articles and essays on teaching elementary science. She established and conducted a summer science camp for SGF students, created a nature walk adjacent to Moreau Elementary School, supervised and organized large, fund-raising school fairs, organized and supervised the elementary school store, helped create the science and mathematics curriculum for SGF elementary schools, created field trips to historic sites and landmarks, and in 1958, went on an around-the-world tour, documenting and journaling her travels for educational purposes.

She started the student council at Moreau Elementary School, acting as advisor for several years, and a Glens Falls Times story said her home on Hudson Street “was always open to children and she is never too busy to lend a helping hand and understanding to her students.”

Marion was also instrumental in establishing the Parks-Bentley House as an historic site, and creating the Historical Society of Moreau and South Glens Falls. In 1992, she was a key figure in planning the South Glens Falls Bicentennial celebrations, putting together information to help educate the community.

Marion passed away in 2004 at the age of 80. She had given her family specific instructions that no memorial service was to be held, but the community held one anyway. Led by Bette Ann Dion Brinkley and Father Michael Abraham, friends and family filled St. Michael’s Church, and many former students spoke of the huge impact she had on their lives. One man told how Marion paid for his college education, something she did quietly and without fanfare.

Shirley Napolitano was valedictorian of her South High class in 1939, and went on to graduate from William Smith College, where she majored in chemistry and biology. She began her teaching career in 1955 at her alma mater, first teaching both chemistry and physics and then later just chemistry. She retired in 1984 after 29 years of service. “Mrs. N.” received a master’s degree in education from SUNY Albany and a master’s degree in chemistry from Simmons College, studying under a National Science Foundation Award. During World War II, she was a research chemist for General Electric in Schenectady for eight years, working on a team that developed, among other things, refinements in the cathode ray tube.

In 1975, the American Chemical Society chose Shirley to be the first woman recipient of the High School Chemistry Teachers Award. The citation read in part: “Mrs. Napolitano knows that a trained mind and critical judgment are essential to success. Teaching, to be effective, cannot be divorced from full professional competence in the subject matter taught. The success of Mrs. Napolitano’s teaching is evidenced by the excellent record of her students in Regents examinations.”

She also received the New York State United Teachers Award for excellence in teaching, and numerous other awards. She helped revise the chemistry Regents exams at the request of the state.

The 1965 Arrowhead Yearbook was dedicated to her. In the dedication, students called Mrs. N. “a woman whose warmth, humor and understanding has endeared her to us. Her active interest in us, not only as students, but also as individuals, and her sincere interest in school affairs and their relationship to the community, inspires us to emulate the example which she set.”

Mrs. Napolitano’s impact has reached several generations, as students she taught went on to become scientists and award-winning teachers themselves.

Sue Bergmeier, in a note to Shirley Napolitano Banker, Mrs. Napolitano’s daughter, wrote, “She made me realize women could be scientists. I got my doctorate in neuroscience and infant development from Boston University, due in part to her influence. She was a very special teacher, perhaps the most important to me in my entire education.”

Another former student, Malcolm Orton ’68, taught high school chemistry for 36 years in Colorado, and credits Mrs. Napolitano as being the “best of the best” teachers he had at South High.

Mrs. Napolitano passed away in 1993 at the age of 72.