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Class Notes and Alumni News

The Legacy of Georgia Nelson, Graland’s Founding Headmistress

By Jim Arneill ’66, School Archives Committee
“… and with reverence to our Lady Nelson …”
For those students and alumni who have experienced the Grade 5 knighting ritual, these are the words spoken by the king just prior to the moment they are awarded the status of knighthood.

“Lady Nelson” is Miss Georgia Nelson, the first leader of Graland who served as headmistress from 1927 to 1960 and from 1963 to 1964.
Miss Nelson was the heart and soul of Graland for generations of children. She demonstrated a love for students and teachers alike that created a learning environment where the joy of learning prevailed and students gained a well-rounded education that would benefit them for the rest of their lives.

The Progressive Education Movement, spearheaded by John Dewey, had begun to gain attention prior to the incorporation of Graland on July 23, 1927. 

After securing a few blocks of prairie at the school’s current location and hiring noted architect and parent Jacques J. Benedict to design the initial building (torn down in 1995 for the current Georgia Nelson Building), the founding parents’ next step was to find a leader for the new school. Founding parent Mrs. Abby Shafroth, through a hearty recommendation from a former Vassar classmate, contacted and courted Georgia Nelson to become Graland’s first leader.

There was no question in the minds of the early school founders that Georgia Nelson was the right person. She had previously taught at highly regarded progressive schools - Francis W. Parker in Chicago, Sunset Hills Country Day School in Kansas City, and Shady Hill in Cambridge, MA. - and those who had worked with her had only the highest praise for her.

After a year of teaching at the Pennsylvania Street location while Graland’s initial building was being constructed, Georgia Nelson began as headmistress in 1927, laying the groundwork for the new school with a deeply caring manner for all and many principles of progressive education. 

One of Georgia Nelson’s early quotes in 1927 was, “Instead of the deadly uninteresting school of the past, Graland pursues the special joy of learning.”

According to historian Tom Noel, Graland was arguably the best school in Denver. Emphasis was placed on the whole child, with physical and emotional growth complementing intellectual development. Many “hands-on” learning opportunities and experimentation based on student interests were created. Responsible leadership and engagement in the community were made possible through business and civic leaders being invited to the school and with field trips to various local sites. Some of those included the Gates Rubber Company, Samsonite Luggage Company, and the Hungarian Flour Mills.

Miss Nelson regularly greeted students upon their arrival at school and often visited classrooms. Her deep affection for each student was further shown by a personal letter she wrote to each graduate and placed at the end of a wood-cover yearbook that reminisced their years at Graland with photos and accompanying poems (an example can be seen on the next page).

In 2020, Graland’s oldest living graduate, Cope McWhinney ’36 Craven, made a series of sound recordings of her early school memories. One of Cope’s main points was that Georgia Nelson created a “community of trust and respect.”

The daughter of longtime and beloved teacher Ruth Gorham, Nancy Gorham ’56 Carraway, wrote, “Your very presence lent such a gentle atmosphere of joy in learning, wisdom, and our enjoyment
of life.”

Georgia Nelson demonstrated an equal caring and dedication to her teachers and staff, making them feel valued while expecting excellence. Through her patience, gentleness, and wisdom, those fortunate to work at Graland developed a deep loyalty toward her and to Graland. There were instances when faculty members experienced financial struggles, and she would discreetly step forward
and help.

During her retirement speech, Georgia Nelson stated, “I agreed to come to Graland for just one year. I traveled by train and was met by Graland parents downtown at Union Station. One year turned to many. I stayed at Graland more than three decades. I am humbled that the main building on campus is named in
my honor.”

As we approach 2027, the 100th anniversary of the school’s founding, several threads of the progressive education movement on which the school was initially founded are still present. The high degree of collaboration between teachers in all disciplines to integrate learning and make it meaningful is very evident. Teachers design many projects to encourage creativity and independent thinking. The Gates Invention and Innovation Program also provides these opportunities for many students. There are other reminders of Miss Nelson that can be seen every day. At the base of the stairway in the Georgia Nelson Building is a beautiful framed portrait, as well as two photographs on the Master Teacher Wall. The house with the white picket fence on the corner of Clermont and Ellsworth is another remembrance. The school purchased the land and built this house for her after she was hired. Also, the Georgia Nelson Award is one of three major awards presented to an honoree of the graduating class.

With Graland Country Day School still standing tall in 2022, our school leaders showed much foresight with their decisions in 1927, including selecting Georgia Nelson as its first leader. 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.