Erlene Bass Nelson, longtime kindergarten teacher

Posted: April 02, 2013

ERLENE BASS NELSON taught kindergarten in the Philadelphia School District for 51 years, and there was no doubt that she enjoyed every minute of it for one, simple reason: She loved the children.

Children, she once said, "are spontaneous, they're loving, they're forgiving - and every day I had an injection of pure love into my soul and into my heart."

Spending all that time in a school district that was often short of money and afflicted with labor problems, violence and other woes.

But Erlene seemed unperturbed by the turmoil that seethed around her classroom. She was too busy having fun.

She once said that her time with the district was "a journey of absolute joy."

Erlene Nelson, who was frequently honored as a teacher and continued after her retirement to teach parents in the district's Parent University, died March 24 of cancer. She was 83 and lived in East Falls.

In each of the three schools in which she taught kindergarten, her classrooms were decorated with pupils' work and educational displays.

"It is my obligation to provide for them a very attractive classroom so when they come, they'll say, 'Hey, I like that place. I want to be in that place. I can't wait to get to school each day,' " she once said.

Erlene had original ways to maintain discipline. Daily News reporter Mensah M. Dean once observed her class at Drew Elementary School in 2003 when the children were chattering noisily.

"I hear somebody whispering in my ear," the teacher announced. "It's Martin Luther King," she had said, pointing to his picture on the wall. "He's saying, 'Respect, respect.' "

The room quieted.

"People say to me, 'Why don't you retire and smell the roses and enjoy your life?' " Erlene, then 73, told the reporter. "And my answer to them is: 'The children are my life.' "

It was that year that Erlene earned the highest distinction in the teaching profession, certification by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. In 2010, she was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

Besides Drew Elementary in University City, Erlene taught kindergarten at the old Gustavus Benson Elementary School at 27th and Wharton streets, and Comegys Elementary in West Philadelphia.

Erlene was born in St. Louis. She was adopted as an infant by Robert Bass, a Pullman railroad porter, and Alvinia Bass. They owned a hotel in that city's black community.

Her adoptive father died when she was 4 and she wound up in a foster home. She excelled as a student in the segregated public schools of St. Louis, and went on to Stowe Teachers College, now Harris-Stowe University, from which she graduated in 1951. She was homecoming queen in 1947.

Over the years, Erlene earned an associate's degree from the Philadelphia College of Art, a master's from Temple University and a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Erlene located her biological mother in 1969. The woman, who was dying of cancer, had said she had tried to visit her when Erlene was a child but was not allowed to see her.

The discovery gave Erlene a kind of closure.

"Before then," she told an interviewer in 2010, "my life was like a book that had no title on the cover. Every page began to have identity."

She married Dr. James Dallas Nelson Sr. in 1950. The marriage ended in divorce in 1963.

Erlene began her teaching career in Philadelphia in 1958 at the former Benson school.

"A wonderful kindergarten is like a pot of stew," she once said. "A little teacher-directed, a little child-directed, a little rote learning, a whole lot of hands-on problem solving, building with blocks, speech and ideas."

At the school district's Parent University, she developed a class entitled "Character Development" to encourage parents to modify their behavior to become better role models for their children.

She created a 7-foot banner, "Beyond the Three Rs: Role Models for Readiness," that has been widely displayed. It lists 20 traits of character all beginning with the letter R - respect, responsibility, resilience, reverence, reciprocity, etc.

Erlene was an active member of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church for 50 years.

She is survived by two sons, James and Gregory Nelson; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren, and her former husband, Dr. James Nelson Sr.

Services: Memorial service was held March 30 at New Covenant Church of Philadelphia.

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