Erlene B. Nelson, 83, Phila. teacher

Posted: March 31, 2013

Dr. Erlene Bass Nelson, 83, of East Falls, an acclaimed teacher who taught kindergarten classes for five decades and later taught parenting skills to adults, died Sunday, March 24, of cancer at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

In 2010, Dr. Nelson, by then retired, received one of her profession's top honors when she was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. Dr. Nelson was only the fourth teacher from Pennsylvania to receive that honor.

The Hall of Fame, in Emporia, Kan., annually honors five teachers in the United States who have demonstrated commitment and dedication to educating children.

"This award goes to every parent," Dr. Nelson said before the School Reform Commission when the honor was announced. "This award goes to every student, because without the students, we would not have a job."

Dr. Nelson taught kindergarten at the old Gustavus Benson Elementary School in Grays Ferry and at Comegys and Drew Elementary Schools in West Philadelphia.

"She was dedicated to being the best teacher she could be. She loved her job and she loved her students," said her son Gregory.

Dr. Nelson was born Jan. 8, 1930, in St. Louis. In 1951, she earned a teaching degree at historically black Stowe Teachers College, now Harris Stowe State University, in St. Louis.

She earned a master's degree in early-childhood education at Temple University in 1976 and later an associate degree in interior design from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). She earned a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1993.

In the early 1950s, she married James Dallas Nelson Sr., a physician, in St. Louis. The marriage ended in divorce.

Dr. Nelson became a kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia in 1958, working at Benson Elementary. Ten years later, she moved to Comegys Elementary. In 2002, Dr. Nelson went to Drew Elementary. She retired in 2008.

She then worked as an adjunct professor at the school district's Parent University, where she taught general education classes and parenting skills to adults.

In 2003, she earned national board certification from the National Education Association.

Dr. Nelson had a refined sense of style and was always fashionably dressed.

"She loved her Manolo Blahnik shoes," her son said. "She was a fashion icon."

She shared that sense of fashion with some of her kindergarten students.

At Drew Elementary in 2006, she had her students draw pictures of dresses and shirts. With the help of Drexel University students and local tailors, she had those designs made into clothing. The children then dazzled their parents and others in a school fashion show.

In addition to her son, Dr. Nelson is survived by another son, James Nelson Jr.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or

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