Public service

People in Public Service: Gertrude Nelson and the Olympia School District

On April 21, 1918, the people of Olympia gathered to celebrate the ongoing construction of the new Olympia High School building on what is now Capitol Way. As Joseph Wohleb, the building’s architect, hoisted the American flag on the site’s mast, a teacher sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” Her name was Gertrude Nelson and she was then a music supervisor for the Olympia school district. She was also the aunt of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, considered the founder of Earth Day.

Gertrude Cecelia Nelson was born to Christian and Gina Nelson on September 6, 1883 in Thorp, Wisconsin. His parents, immigrants from Norway, had a farm. The family must have valued education. According to the 1905 Wisconsin State Census, Gertrude worked as a teacher in the Centuria area.

The Nelson family decided to move to Montesano, Washington a few years later. Gertrude’s father became president of the Nelson Land Company. His brother Ove Nelson worked as the company’s manager and was also the town attorney for Montesano.

Portrait of Gertrude Nelson in 1917
Gertrude Nelson, seen here in the 1917 issue of the Olympia High School Yearbook, was music supervisor for the Olympia School District. Photo credit: Washington State Library

Gertrude continues to teach. In 1909 she received a license to teach in Chehalis County – renamed Grays Harbor County in 1915 – and taught in Hoquiam schools for a time before being hired by the Olympia School District in 1914 .

She became an assistant teacher at a temporary school that was set up to reduce overcrowding by housing seventh and eighth graders from Washington, lincoln and Roosevelt Schools. Called the central school – not to be confused with the more famous Historic Central School — the building was once the home of the Olympia Collegiate Institute and other educational groups.

One student in particular has fond memories of those years. Writing about her days at Central School, Elizabeth McElroy Allison in her memoirs – held at the Washington State Library and reprinted in the Thurston County Historical Journal No. 15) – said that: “Miss Nelson was dear and also taught us. She was also a music teacher. We had a girl choir and learned many classical tunes.

Gertrude continued to teach at the central school during the 1915-1916 school year. The school then closed when the overcrowding problem resolved itself.

However, Gertrude found a new niche when she was appointed Music Supervisor for the Olympia School District. She was also a drawing and writing supervisor. As a supervisor, she sought to increase the importance of music in local schools. One thing she did, as the Morning Olympian described on March 20, 1916, was to organize a series of concerts, “for the purpose of raising the standards of music in the public schools of the city ” where John McCormick, a renowned tenor from Ireland, sang. It happened in Washington, Garfield and Lincoln Schools.

This photo from the 1917 launch issue of the Olympia High School Yearbook shows the cast of
This photo from the 1917 launch issue of the Olympia High School Yearbook shows the cast of “Priscilla.” Photo credit: Washington State Library

Gertrude also coordinated and directed two operettas at Olympia High School. On March 30, 1917, the Girls Glee Club, with the help of boys from the school, presented “Priscilla, or The Pilgrim’s Proxy” at the Ray Theater downtown. Thirty-five students participated in the play, eight of them as the main cast. The story is based on Longfellow’s poem, “The Court of Miles Standish”, which tells the highly fictionalized story of a love triangle in the early years of Plymouth Colony. Four members of the school orchestra provided the music. Tickets were sold at the downtown bookstore.

The play was hailed as a success. The following day the newspaper enthused that it had been “performed to a packed hall and the students had made a decisive success as evidenced by the applause given to each number and the repeated encores which were demanded by the audience” .

A year later, Gertrude repeated her success when Olympia High School students staged the operetta “Princess Chrysanthemum” at the Ray Theater on March 1, 1918. The whimsical story told the story of a kidnapped princess. After eight weeks of practice, the students were ready to play. The costumes were shipped from Seattle.

Gertrude has also acted in school programs. She played a violin solo in May 1915 in a Peace Day program at Central School. Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Josephine Preston spoke at the event. Gertrude also sang solos at the eighth grade Olympia Schools graduations in 1915 and 1916.

While attending Cornish School in Seattle, Gertrude taught private music lessons at Olympia. Morning Olympian advertisement from October 20, 1922. Photo credit: Washington State Library

As a teacher, Gertrude was active in the Thurston County Institute, an annual meeting for continuing education of teachers from across the county. Additionally, Nelson was a member of the PEO, a philanthropic organization for professional women. She participated in a musical hosted by First Lady Alma Lister at the Governor’s Mansion in March 1916, singing “Awake My Heart with Rapture”. In April 1917, Gertrude even hosted the group in her room at the Capital Apartments.

Gertrude’s musical endeavors were not limited to schools. She was active in the Olympia First Methodist Episcopal Church and frequently sang at sacred music concerts and other gatherings. A member of the Epworth League, she even led a discussion at a March 1918 meeting on “The Art of Living with Others”.

Gertrude left Olympia and attended Ellensburg Normal School, now Central Washington University, before earning a music degree from Washington State College, now Washington State University. But she hadn’t finished studying. In 1922, Gertrude entered the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She then earned a master’s degree in music from Columbia University in New York.

Gertrude continued to teach music, especially singing. She lived in Seattle for many years with her sister Alma Nelson Blake and spent her later years with her nephew Gregory Nelson and his wife in Montesano. Gertrude died on October 18, 1970 at the age of 87. Although Gertrude has only been in Olympia for a while, her love of music lives on in the school district’s strong music programs.

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