Educator and Public Servant

Gloria Borja Nelson (1935-2012) was a former Guam Department of Education director and a vocal advocate for retirees and senior citizens’ rights. She dedicated her life to public service, education and social reform, particularly for teachers, and for the rights and enhanced government services for the island’s senior citizens.

Affectionately known as Lola, Nelson was born on 20 April 1935 in the barrio of San Nicolas in Hagåtña (near the Cathedral), the daughter of Luis Quitugua Borja and Maria Desa Camacho Borja.  She grew up in a household that emphasized the importance of education, hard work and individual responsibility, and was strongly encouraged to be active in the Catholic faith and the island community.

At the beginning of World War II on Guam, Nelson’s family initially fled to Mongmong, then later relocated to Mogfog, Dededo, before being forced to march to the Manenggon concentration camps with thousands of other Chamorros prior to the American re-invasion of the island in 1944.  Like many island children who lived through the years of Japanese Occupation, young Lola’s education had been interrupted, but she was determined to finish school.  In fact, she completed elementary and high school in nine years, graduating from George Washing High School in 1955.

Her granddaughter, Desiree Taimanglo-Ventura, described her grandmother’s life in a home that also valued self-sufficiency:

“One of the things she was very very proud of was the way she spent most of her childhood well-fed (because of her family’s ability to grow food and catch their own and fish).  She knew how to catch fish and plant food.  She also came from a very entrepreneurial family (which was kind of rare at the time of the war).  Her family owned a small convenience store and her mother and aunts worked together during the war to keep money going by selling certain goods to soldiers and whoever could afford during the occupation, things like cigarettes, cheese, coconut oil, etc.  The women really controlled and made the money (doing everything from laundry to selling small chesa (snacks) and beer to men when they came home from working long days of forced labor).  All the women in her family were very entrepreneurial and she saw this growing up, that it was important to learn to make your own income as a woman and know how to feed  yourself.”

With a Territorial College of Guam Scholarship she pursued an Associate of Arts degree at the College (now known as the University of Guam). In 1959, she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Ohio State University.  After college she married Theodore “Ted” S. Nelson and the two attended graduate school together at the University of New Mexico where she obtained a Masters of Science degree in Educational Administration and Supervision.  She took courses in Educational Law and Statistics at the University of Oregon, and Reading courses at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

For more than thirty years, Nelson worked to help improve the island’s educational system. She began her career as an elementary school substitute teacher for the Guam Department of Education (DOE), then progressed through the ranks as a certified teacher, a consultant, school principal, deputy director and finally director. She was an appointed, and later, an elected school board member.  While at DOE, Nelson sought to implement a diverse range of original programs to enhance child development and classroom instruction. She also took great initiative to secure financial and educational resources for public schools and improve the professional stature of DOE teachers. She was instrumental in lobbying for equitable pay and benefits for teachers and argued for educational reform. Nelson believed in the power of community and urged parents, teachers, mayors and other leaders to take action to help motivate and assist Guam’s young people. In addition she advocated for the rights of teachers regarding social issues, such as putting a stop to the removal of pregnant teachers from working; supporting certification for limited term substitute teachers; and providing opportunities for school aides to attend college and become certified.

Nelson served as the Educational Centennial Planning Committee Chairperson, and was a Centennial Task Force member; she directed the development of a “Blue Print for Excellence” for DOE under the Office of the Governor.  In addition, she was an Officer and Member of the Association of School Administrators (Elementary and Secondary); President of the Mongmong Elementary School PTA; and a member of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA), and the Association for Supervision Curriculum and Development (ASCD).

Believing that encouraging dedicated, disciplined and creative teachers and administrators was essential in public education, Nelson worked to provide continuous staff development opportunities for DOE teachers, administrators and central staff. She initiated “Happy Labor” campaigns in the villages with the assistance of the mayors to help maintain a safe and healthy school environment.

Nelson was also recognized for her unique brand of discipline for students within the classroom. Rather than punishing students by suspending them or referring them to other government agencies, she instead created the notion of the “Opportunity Classroom” to give students supervised assignments designed to help them face their challenges and improve their academic performance.  She also initiated the Head Start program, a national program that provides comprehensive child development services and early reading and math skills to economically-disadvantaged children, at Guam’s public elementary schools.

According to Guam US Representative Madeleine Bordallo, Nelson was:

“firm and instilled in her students not only academic knowledge, but also self-confidence, motivation, and a desire to give back to their community. She is remembered by many who she taught as an enthusiastic and energetic educator who contained a wealth of knowledge of the histories of Guam and Micronesia, and a teacher who dedicated herself to the needs of her students, even beyond the classroom.”

Nelson took her expertise in educational leadership outside of DOE and into the larger Guam community and Micronesian region.  She was an Eskeulan Pale’ teacher with the Mongmong Catholic Church, as well as an instructor at the University of Guam.  With the assistance of the University of Oregon, she was instrumental in helping some faculty at UOG obtain their doctoral degrees.  With her husband, Ted, Nelson lived briefly in Palau and helped develop Palau’s school system and establish the first high school in Koror.

Guam leaders frequently asked Nelson for assistance to improve the island’s educational system. In 1983, Governor Ricardo Bordallo appointed her as Director of Education, a position she held for 56 months. After her appointment, she continued as the chairperson of the Board of Education for three years. She was known for her “no nonsense, tough yet compassionate, practical and charismatic leadership.” As friend and colleague Dr. Judith Guthertz asserted in her eulogy at Nelson’s funeral:

“In your lifetime of profession and civic service, you constantly butted heads with the powers that be to protect the public interest. You challenged autocracy in bureaucratic offices and school buildings alike. You cut through the bureaucratic haze and smoke. You even took on two Governors of Guam, a difficult undertaking, to protect the independence of the elected school board.”

Nelson was also fondly referred to as “Lola COLA” because of her dedicated efforts to win COLA (cost of living allowance) pay increases for retirees of the Government of Guam. In a class action lawsuit that lasted 13 years, Nelson, along with Candelaria “Lala” Rios, helped wage a battle to bring to fruition the COLA adjustment owed by GovGuam to its retirees.

Throughout her life, Nelson was committed to various community organizations. She was elected president of Guam’s Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers, vice-chair of the Latte of Freedom Foundation, and president of the Guam Association of Retired Persons (GARP).  She served as Administrator for the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration (FDAA).  She was a member of the Developmental Disabilities Council and a Founder of Ayuda i Manmalangu Guahan, Inc.  She also was a member of the UOG Board of Regents.  She was elected chairperson of the Guam Election Commssion, served as Chair of the Democratic Party of Guam, and ran for lieutenant governor in 1994. Her last major role in public service was as an active member and officer of the Consolidated Commission on Utilities, a role she carried out despite her illness.

Gloria Nelson passed away on 14 October 2012 at the age of 77 from cancer.  True to her character, she had been a strong advocate for other cancer patients from Guam and had great concern particularly for patients who traced their illness to possible exposure to radiation and other toxins in local rivers and soil.  She reorganized Ayuda i Manmalangu Guahan, Inc., a nonprofit intended to help Guam cancer patients being treated off-island with financial support and through the donation of goods and services.  According to her granddaughter, “it was her very last ‘project’ before she passed away.”

Nelson and her husband, former Vice-Speaker and Sen. Ted S. Nelson, raised four children: Gwen, Ted, Jr., Glenn and Rhonda.  She also adopted Mary Adelbai Wenty from Palau, as well as reared Mary’s granddaughter, Koyu.

Throughout her life, Nelson received numerous awards and accolades, including recognition from the Guam Women’s Club for Outstanding Accomplishments; a Resolution for Outstanding Accomplishments by the Territorial Board of Education; Recognition by the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) for Outstanding Leadership and Support; and the Chief Quipuha Award by the late Honorable Ricardo J. Bordallo.  Furthermore, the 30th Guam Legislature passed a resolution as Nelson was inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame, Phi Delta Kappa, Guam Chapter, 1302, in recognition of her invaluable contributions and lifelong dedication to the education of Guam’s youth. She received a second Legislative Resolution from the 31st Guam Legislature shortly after her death.

By Dominica Tolentino

For further reading

Bordallo, Madeleine Z. “Honoring the Life and Service of Gloria Camacho Borja Nelson.”  Capitolwords. Vol. 158, no. 138, pp. e17-19.  23 October 2012. (accessed 24 April 2013).

Guam Legislature. Resolution No. 557-31 (COR), 2012.

Guam Legislature. Resolution No. 490-30 (COR), 2010.

“Senator Gutherz Mourns Passing of Gloria Nelson.” Pacific News Center, 15 October 2012. (accessed 24 April 2013).

“State of Mourning: in Honor of Gloria B. Nelson.” Proclamation no. 2012-090. Office of the Governor of Guam. (accessed 24 April 2013).

Taitano, Zita Y. “Gloria Nelson Laid to Rest.”  Marianas Variety, 24 October 2012. (accessed 24 April 2013).