“Let’s Exercise, So We Can Die Healthy”

When the university adopted a wellness program seven years ago, Maribel rallied the faculty with a humorous phrase that always brought laughter and smiles, even on the gloomiest days, “Let’s exercise, so we can die healthy.” Like a bundle of pent-up energy, Maribel walked really fast. I could barely keep up with her on our walks around the campus between classes. In spite of my pain, she always managed to make me laugh.

My colleague and friend of ten years loved making people happy with her cooking, a “joie de vivre.” With a master’s degree in Food Science, she knew the precise art of making cheese. As a teenager, she attended school in France with her mom, learned to speak French fluently, and studied the many varieties of French cheese. She never dreamed that someday she would teach French and Spanish to gifted students instead.

A native Venezuelan, Maribel prepared her famous paella for outdoor parties around the campus gazebo. There was always an excuse for another fiesta or a celebration that necessitated a party, cooking for a large crowd, and Maribel’s talent of bringing everybody together on a short notice and on a tight budget. The introduction of a new faculty member was a party with Maribel’s ham as the center piece, cooked slowly with Bourbon.

Maribel loved life and her students. She taught them to pursue their dreams, never give up, and to enjoy life to its fullest. A mentor and motivator, Maribel would give time, money, clothes, and advice to students who were less fortunate and had a strained family life. She made them comfortable enough that they confessed their problems and she offered solutions.

Speeding in her old white Toyota like a woman with a divine purpose and a ticket plastered to her windshield, Maribel would always arrive a few minutes late but always left long after all the faculty had cleared out, talking to students in hushed, soothing tones, probing to see how she could help them. In Venezuela, she used to say, you were not on time unless you were fifteen minutes late.

In her first teaching year, Maribel put up a beautiful Christmas tree in the lobby, without consulting the powers that be. After a letter of reprimand was put in her file and a verbal dress down, she happily continued to add decorations and secret Santa gifts under the tree, helped by students of various religions who enjoyed the Christmas tree as much as she did.

Every year, Maribel voluntarily raised thousands of dollars to help students have a memorable prom. She gave endless hours of her time in preparation for the fundraiser, the planning, and the execution.

The mother of three children and a devoted wife, Maribel found time to be a substitute mom to other people’s children who were not as lucky as hers. Her genuine care put students at ease and gave them comfort.

Always in pursuit of excellence, Maribel set out to become a nationally certified Spanish teacher. She did not give up after failing twice. On the first attempt, after building a year-long portfolio, she flew to San Antonio to deliver the project in person because she would have missed the deadline otherwise. She succeeded on the third try. Sadly, she did not get to earn much of the merit pay that came with the national certification.

Although a picture of health and seldom sick, Maribel was stricken by a rare form of cancer. She passed away last year in her beloved Venezuela, in the prime of her life, surrounded by friends and family, and mourned by hundreds of former students.

As her March 14 birthday approaches, I found a favorite picture that captures perfectly her wonderful spirit, her contagious smile, and her zest for life. Maribel’s generosity, love of children, of dancing, teaching, and cooking has touched so many along the way.

Because Maribel had never met a stranger, I imagine my friend with beautiful curly tresses and a sunny face, rolling up her sleeves and teaching angels in Heaven how to properly plan a fiesta and cook arepas.

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