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Mary L. Fonseca, 90; was pioneer in state Senate

Mary Leite Fonseca, the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, advanced the concerns of Fall River's blue-collar residents in the state Senate for 32 years.

A Democrat, Mrs. Fonseca was the first woman to hold a leadership post in the state Senate. She was named second assistant majority leader shortly after she was first elected in 1952 and was first assistant majority leader, or majority whip, from 1973 until she lost her bid for reelection in 1984.

She died Monday, apparently of a heart attack, in County Gardens Nursing Home in Swansea. She was 90.

''She blazed a trail for women at a time when it wasn't as accepted as it is today," Edward M. Lambert Jr., the mayor of Fall River, said yesterday.

A tiny woman with a penchant for big hairdos and flashy hats, Mrs. Fonseca was called ''Mary the Hat" in her hometown. As a legislator, she was a champion for women and public education and had a habit of lecturing fellow lawmakers with schoolmarmish homilies.

In 1974 in a speech on the Senate floor, a fellow senator said that a bill she supported to grant a $4,800 tax deduction for working mothers to pay for day care would destroy family life in the state. Mrs. Fonseca stood up in indignation.

''I resent the senator's remarks, and I resent them on behalf of all women and working women in Massachusetts," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. ''If we can find money for welfare, we can find money to assist women who want to work, who MUST work to help support the needs of a growing family."

The Senate then advanced the bill to a third reading by a vote of 26 to 5.

''A lot of her work was designed to ensure that immigrant working kids got a fair shake," Lambert said.

Mrs. Fonseca was born in Fall River. ''I wanted to go to college so bad when I graduated from Durfee High School in 1932, but as the oldest girl in a family of 12, I had to go right to work," she said in 1996, according to a story published in the Fall River Herald News.

The mother of two worked at the Fall River Public Library. She was also a secretary for a local attorney and an administrative secretary at the US Bureau of Census and Massachusetts Civil Defense Agency.

She served on the Fall River School Committee for several years and made her first successful bid for the Senate in 1952.

Her campaign was a low-budget affair run out of her third-floor home on Webster Street.

''I tossed my bonnet in the ring in January and for the next 11 months, home life for all of us was just a mad scramble," she said in a 1952 story published in the Globe.

Her husband, John C. Fonseca Jr., who managed her early campaigns, died in 1970.

Mrs. Fonseca was a stalwart supporter of Southeastern Massachusetts University (now the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth) and Bristol Community College in Fall River.

''She did a tremendous amount for education," her daughter, Irene V. Fonseca of Norton, said.

During her political career, Mrs. Fonseca attended countless installations of officers at American Legion posts, Rotary Clubs, and other organizations. ''She conducted a beautiful candlelight ceremony," said her daughter. ''She was the 'Queen of the Installation.' "

She was a retail politician who shook thousands of hands and attended countless wakes and funerals. ''Even after she left the Senate, she was famous for attending funerals," said Lambert.

Mrs. Fonseca had Alzheimer's disease in recent years. ''But she never lost her people skills," said her daughter. ''She still loved to smile and greet people."

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Fonseca leaves three sisters, Olivia Nobrega of Somerset, Laura Brown of Derry, N.H., and Francesca Petisca of Fall River; and two grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Holy Rosary Church in Fall River. Burial will be in St. Patrick's Cemetery in Fall River.

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