When we set out to document the life of the much-loved school teacher and principal, Helena H. Dyer, we didn’t realize that this would turn out to be another example of what a small and close-knit community we have. When I first contacted our volunteer genealogist, Jackie Dunham, the initial question was – what was Helena Dyer’s maiden name?

This is often a tricky part in researching a lot of women in history. The historical societal norm of women changing their last name to their husband’s name can sometimes be a surprising roadblock in tracing someone’s past.

Helena M. Harrington taught second grade at Knightville School for 20 years, until she married in 1932. After she married, she changed her name to Helena H. Dyer. During World War II, she became a teacher, and later principal, at Marion Street School. South Portland Historical Society photo

In Helena H. Dyer’s case, she was born Helen Margaret Harrington in 1892, the daughter of James F. and Nora Cragin Harrington. On a side note: when I saw the name of Helena’s father, I recognized it immediately. James Harrington had been a brass worker, but in 1901, he came to South Portland when our first central post office opened in the Masonic building in Knightville.

James Harrington became one of a handful of men who were the very first letter carriers in South Portland, providing home delivery of mail (prior to that, all residents had to go to their local neighborhood postal station to pick up their mail). The Harrington family settled in the house at 344 Pine St. on the corner of Chase Street (the home was known as 300 Pine St. back then, but the house was renumbered to 344 during World War II.

After graduating from South Portland High School in 1912, Helena became a second-grade teacher at Knightville School in South Portland, where she taught for 20 years. After she married Raymond C. Dyer in 1932, she “retired” from teaching and they lived at 125 Chase St., the house next door to her parents. Although she was no longer a full-time teacher, throughout the rest of the 1930s, Helena continued teaching as a substitute teacher in South Portland schools.

On another side note: We’ve actually made mention of Helena Dyer’s husband previously. Raymond C. Dyer was the son of John A.S. Dyer who we wrote about in a column this past June. John A.S. Dyer left his grocery at 85 Ocean St., corner of D Street, to his sons, Albert and Raymond. They operated the grocery for a few years as “Dyer Brothers,” then sold the business in 1941 to Albert Wheeler and Nelson Packhem who converted the store to a drug store and named it Legion Square Pharmacy.


During World War II when two massive shipyards were created at Cushing’s Point in South Portland, the huge influx of workers created a population boom in South Portland schools. At a wartime housing development called Broadview Park along Alfred Street, the city decided to build a new school to accommodate all of the children of the shipyard workers who lived in that area. The school faced Marion Street (a street planned as part of the Broadview Park development) and thus the school was aptly named the Marion Street School when it opened on Sept. 5, 1944. Schools need teachers, of course, and Helena H. Dyer agreed to come back as a full-time teacher at this school, still teaching second grade.

Knightville School once stood prominently facing Legion Square (formerly called Knightville Square). The school was torn down. The footprint of the building was located in the area where the post office parking lot is today. South Portland Historical Society photo

She also continued her own education through the years, taking classes offered through Columbia, Harvard, Boston University, St. Joseph’s College, Gorham State Teachers College and the University of Maine.

In 1948, Helena Dyer was named principal at Marion Street School. She remained the school principal until her retirement in 1959. The following year, the school department decided to honor Helena by renaming the Marion Street School as the Helena H. Dyer Elementary School. That original school was replaced by a new school built just adjacent. The old school was torn down in 1972. The “new” Helena H. Dyer School held its dedication ceremony in June of 1973 and Helena Dyer was in attendance at the event.

Note: As you are looking into ways to buy local for your holiday gift giving, please consider the South Portland Historical Society’s ornament fundraiser. All eight of the ornaments, including this year’s Memorial Junior High/Middle School ornament, are available at Drillen Hardware, Broadway Variety and Embers Stoves & Fireplaces. Please plan to use cash or check for your ornament purchase as these businesses are very generously selling the ornaments on our behalf – all proceeds go directly to the historical society. If you’d like to use a credit card, if you’d like to make a purchase of a large number of ornaments, or if you’d like to have an ornament shipped (for an additional $6), please call the society directly at 207-767-7299. Thank you.

A 1944 image of Marion Street School. The school was constructed during World War II when a large influx of shipyard workers and their families came to South Portland. The school was renamed in 1960 in honor of Helena H. Dyer, and was later torn down and replaced by the school that is there today on Alfred Street. South Portland Historical Society image

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at editor@inthesentry.com.

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