Elinor Brelsford: 1916-2018In Memoriam | Thu Feb 07, 2019 | 12:00am
Among the many legacies Elinor Bale Brelsford created in her amazing 102-year life, one of the most significant was her work as director of The Oaks Parent-Child Workshop. Her nurturing of both children and parents during their early preschool parenting years touched thousands of lives. Though she was not one to seek attention — making her wish known that there would be no memorial service — she couldn’t prevent family and friends from coming together last fall to celebrate her remarkable life and impact. Folks came from across the country to pay tribute to Elinor and share stories of her work at The Oaks and how it lives on.
Elinor’s career at The Oaks began almost accidentally. The school, originally founded in 1947 as the Hoff Heights Parents Community Nursery School, had shifted locations over its first five years from Hoff Heights (near Adams Elementary) to the Riviera, and would soon need to move again. Elinor was hired in 1952, three years after she and her husband, Harry, arrived in town. “I thought it was just a temporary position,” she said, “and it ended up being 31 years.”
Those turned out to be critical years for The Oaks and the other parent-child workshops that followed. Based on a model of collaboration with S.B. City College, our region’s four co-ops provide both preschool education for children and parent education for parents who participate in a hands-on setting. Elinor wrote that the creation of these preschools — The Oaks, Starr-King, San Marcos, and Lou Grant in Carpinteria — was “the beginning of a long relationship of friendship and educational teamwork” with SBCC.
Still, The Oaks needed a new home. In 1958, families purchased 605 West Junipero Street. Shortly afterward, Elinor received a call from the fire department: The building had just burned to the ground. Undaunted, Elinor led the school’s efforts to secure donations of construction supplies and services, and they rebuilt. Marilyn Statucki, the next Oaks director, explained, “Elinor was the force that helped The Oaks find a home and carry on. She really saved the school.” Eventually, the school was renamed The Oaks Nursery School, inspired by the trees on the property and in neighboring Oak Park. The school continues to operate today, more than 60 years later, at the same address.
Parents who had attended The Oaks during Elinor’s era remember her calmness and patience. The day began with a morning-arrival ritual. Elinor, the consummate greeter, welcomed each child by name. Children would line up as they entered the gate, looking like little birds checking in with Elinor with open mouths so she could give them their morning health inspection before they ran off to play. As the morning unfolded, Elinor would move about the school, often with waves of children in her wake. The children just loved being around her. When the moment felt right, Elinor would sit down at the school piano without much to-do and bring music into the mix.
One set of parents, Bob and Mary Renaud, recall how Elinor would devote her attention to each child. When she was called to assist with a conflict, she would get down at the children’s level, put her arms around each child, and guide the resolution process without anger. They also mentioned Elinor’s sense of humor. When the Renauds had missed five weeks of school because all four of their children got the chicken pox, one after another, Elinor joked that their tuition was still due.
Children gained experiences that stayed with them. Matthew Renaud insisted that the family care for the school guinea pigs during a holiday. As he lifted one from the hutch, he exclaimed, “Eeew, the guinea pig just wet on me!” Moments later he held a baby guinea pig in his hand: He had just witnessed a guinea pig birth. He remembers to this day what he named the babies — Vanilla, Chocolate, and Neapolitan.
In 1976, in honor of Elinor’s 25th year as director, The Oaks community planned a surprise celebration at Earl Warren. She remembered fondly the quilt that families gave her, the designs created by children. The families also donated a play structure to the city, installed at Oak Park as a gift to the children of Santa Barbara in her honor. Elinor took a sabbatical that year to study education in China, returning to direct The Oaks for five more years with her close friend and colleague Ruth Scollin. They retired together in 1982.
In addition to her role as director of The Oaks, Elinor was a licensed psychologist, an instructor for SBCC and UCSB, and a passionate advocate for international education. She taught UCSB Extension classes in early childhood education, as well as an overseas summer program in Comparative Education of Young Children.
Through her kind and lighthearted but wise and steadfast approach, Elinor changed the course of early-childhood education in Santa Barbara. Her family — including children Marcia Brelsford and John Bale Brelsford; daughter-in law Diana Brelsford; grandchildren Jennifer Roddick and Daniel Brelsford; and two great-grandchildren Calder and Elcie — continues to actively support The Oaks, as do generations of Oaks families. The powerful approach Elinor helped shape lives on — to support both parents and children in the early preschool years. She would be proud.