Elton Herbert Nelson: A Phenomenal Man

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 02, 2019

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn Tuesday, March 26, Elton Herbert Nelson, a good friend and fellow teacher at Curepe E. C., now named Holy Saviour (Curepe) Anglican School, passed away. I could not allow his passing to go unnoticed and unrecorded; such was his stature and the indelible contribution he made to the life of Trinidadians and Tobagonians.

I met Elton in September 1963 when I taught at Holy Saviour. Our affection and respect for each other grew because our teaching careers followed a similar educational trajectory: School Leaving Certificate, monitor, pupil teacher, assistant teacher and, in Elton’s case, Teachers’ Training College. Climbing that educational ladder laid a basis for our love of teaching and a desire to serve our society through our vocation.

Elton was born in Caroni on May 25, 1945. His family moved to Curepe where he attended Curepe E. C. as a boy. Although he was unsuccessful in the college exhibition, the forerunner to common entrance, Elton obtained his primary school leaving certificate in 1960. Given the sparsity of free secondary school places at the time (Government offered 1,000 free secondary places in 1960), he became a pupil teacher and an assistant under the tutelage of renowned scholar and principal, Cecil Algernon Ifill. He attended the Port of Spain Teachers’ College (1971 to 1973), after which he returned to teach at and later served as the principal of Holy Saviour (1993-2003).

Elton was a master teacher. He studied assiduously, prepared his lessons carefully and had total mastery over his classes. A nervous energy characterized everything he did. His was the most disciplined class within Holy Saviour. It was one of the gifts he acquired from Ifill, his mentor, who developed the pedagogical skills of the young teachers under his charge, yours truly included.

Haydn Murray, Elton’s colleague at Holy Saviour and later principal at Good Shepherd (Tunapuna) Anglican School, writes: “Elton Herbert Nelson was a colossus in the history of primary school education in Trinidad. Together with George Singh and Patrick Donatien, he put Curepe Anglican on the map as one of the leading primary schools in the country.”

Elton was a polymath. He authored several books, the first of which was Metric is Simple (1979) that aimed to allow people of all ages to grasp the concept of the metric system. Other companion volumes followed: “A Guide to Metric is Simple,” and “Test Yourself in Metric Units.”

He also co-authored My Land, a social studies text with Gloria Pollard, as well as Composition Writing Skills, a two-part language arts text, with Lucy Arthur, his partner of 29 years. Nothing broke Elton’s protean creativity and unbounded enthusiasm for learning. He seemed to say, “Show me an educational challenge and I will embrace it.”

Elton also pioneered the weekly pullout of common entrance practice tests that appeared in the Express and later in Newsday. These “Practice Tests” were a result of “home grown tests” (Haydn’s words) that Elton and George Singh, his boyhood friend and colleague, prepared for their common entrance pupils. Elton did the science and social science tests while Singh did the mathematics and language tests. The work of this dynamic duo and their colleagues gained Holy Saviour the appellation, “The Common Entrance Factory.”

Elton was also a charter member and past president of the Rotary Club of St. Augustine West. He organized various symposia for young Rotarians and sought employment opportunities for them through his JOY (Job Opportunity for Youth) project. Dellard Nelson, Elton’s younger son, reminded us that his father lent “his expertise in education towards many of the club’s projects that targeted youth development within the community.”

Prof. Stephan Gift, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Graduate Studies at the University of the West Indies, worked closely with Elton at the Rotary Club. He said: “Elton epitomized the four-way test for Rotary: Is it the truth; is it fair to all concerned; will it build goodwill and better friendships; will it be beneficial to all concerned?”

Brevard Nelson, Elton’s older son, acknowledged his father’s love of mathematics. He used a mathematical analogy when he eulogized his father: “If I had to choose an equation to represent him, it would probably be more like a quadratic equation where you have some very clear and known constants and coefficients yet there are few unknown variables that YOU have to try to solve. But alas, Dad, permit me to use a simpler method: a Venn diagram.

“To me, my dad epitomizes what you get when a passion for education meets philanthropy meets creativity, or as Dad would probably put it, E intersects P intersects C.”

Elton came out of the “monitorial system” that had its origin in the ward school system that Lord Harris established in 1851. In 1869, the Trinidad Chronicle noted in its editorial that some of the ward schoolmasters (they weren’t known as principals then) failed in their duties “owing to the non-utilization of the monitorial system at the Model School for the production of teachers” (November 30, 1869).

Elton benefitted from Ifill, a master teacher, who followed in the footsteps of L. B. Tronchin, superintendent of Woodbrook Model School, Joseph De Suze, headmaster of St. Thomas’s School and author of Little Folks Trinidad and, of more recent vintage, Hamilton Holder, principal of Progressive High School, and John Donaldson, former Minister of Education.

Elton followed in their luminous footsteps. He achieved greatness through their example and hard work. He will receive his due when the achievements of T&T’s great educators are documented and that would be praise indeed.