A Lady from India

Remembering Daulette Pestonji O'Mara in Fifth Grade


Miss Daulette Pestonji, Batchelder Street School, Laconia NH, 1958 -- Dean Dexter Collection

You’re in the fifth grade and it’s the first day of school. Big stuff. You’re well scrubbed, skinny, trudging along the streets of the South End, from a house on Court Street, over to Academy, across South Main, where a cop of another time, a local legend, Lawrence “Robby” Robinson, mans the cross-walk at the foot of Pine Hill. This man is not a retired person wearing a baseball cap and orange stripes on his back. He is a gruff beat patrolman in full uniform, maybe six feet tall, slinging a night stick. Other kids are there, waiting for his signal to cross. Susan Royal, a classmate, suddenly says “Hi, Mr. Robinson.” He briefly smiles at her, says nothing, but glares at the rest of us as we walk, cars stopped in the street.

There is more trudging up Pine Hill, a long walk on boney legs to a 1920s era brick pile that was then Batchelder Street School.

 But, lo, the teacher is slight and dark, from India, no less. India?

Yes, with jet black hair pulled back tightly into a small bun. Her eyes are bright and large, missing nothing. Her voice is exotic with a distinct accent, but her diction is acute, careful, precise, easy to listen to. Loud and strong when it needs to be. Her demeanor is quite forthright, yet kindly. Very sure of herself. Her movements are graceful, like a model’s.

I, frankly, did not know what to make of her.

We learned later that Miss Pestonji, as we called her, an orphan from Calcutta, was no push-over. She kept us in line both in the classroom as well as on the small sandlot during recess, where we played baseball. But she did so with such class. And she was so nice about it.

We have recently read in the newspapers about the passing of Daulette “Dolly” (Pestonji) O’Mara, age 84, a teacher in Laconia for some 37 years, retiring in 1993. We had the pleasure of knowing Mrs. O’Mara as a teacher and as a friend. We had lost contact since I had moved away, and the years slipped by. But there are memories here. Good ones.

It is an irony of life that in her late sixties, my own mother, recently widowed, got on a plane to spend 18 years as a Christian missionary in India, founding schools and orphanages in Orissa, north of Calcutta, retiring only a few years ago, in her mid-eighties.

Not often, but occasionally, Miss Pestonji would tell her students of the land of her youth. She spoke of the Dalai Lama, the first we’d heard of this so-called God-Man of Tibet, and his difficulties with Red China, which continue today. Then he was in his 20s. Now he is an old man. And we no longer call China "Red," since it is so green with our dollar bills.

Miss Pestonji would tell of Mahatma Gandhi and his struggles and assassination, and how it all brought about the Birth of the great Indian democracy. I was particularly struck with the saga of the Black Hole of Calcutta, where she said a great atrocity occurred in the 1750s, in which British soldiers and Anglo-Indians were held captive, many dying of the heat and lack of oxygen. Today, some historians say that perhaps not that many died, maybe it was 40 or so, instead of several hundred. No one really knows. It is a mystery. Like Miss Pestonji was a mystery. A pleasant mystery, to a small boy in a small town. A gracious, gentle, beautiful, smart as a whip mystery.

Dean Dexter is a former chairman of the Laconia School Board, at which time, Mrs. O’Mara, the former Miss Daulette Pestonji of Calcutta, continued to take careful note of his behavior.


Mrs. Daulette Pestonji O'Mara at her Laconia, NH residence,, circa 2000


Posted June 28, 2012

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