Margaret Elliot in 1943
Photo Courtesy of the Bremerton School District
Margaret Elliot in 1973
Margaret Elliot was a teacher and she liked naughty children
She liked to travel to faraway lands, like Italy. Not so faraway
lands, like Mexico. And she liked to hike the woods here in Kitsap
She loved adventure.
“If something happens, I’ll be there.”
In 1940, when she heard Galloping Gertie was letting ‘er buck, she
jumped in her car and raced from Poulsbo to the Tacoma Narrows. She
wanted to watch.
“I was going to see what was what.”
When Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980 she jumped in her car
and headed toward the volcano. She was 69 years old and made it all
the way to Chehalis. Ash ruined her car.
“I got down there and couldn¹t see anything.” She missed the
action. But that wasn¹t the point.
“Don’t be afraid to go, just go.”
Margaret was a teacher by trade, and she tried to teach courage.
“Gusto” and “spunk” are two words family and friends used to
describe her. Until the end. She wanted to live to be 100.
Feb. 24 at a nursing home in Tacoma. She was 97 years old. She
spent 40 of those years as a teacher in Kitsap County, most in
Bremerton, and 29 years at the Manette School in Bremerton,
retiring in 1973.
If you said the words “Manette School” in Margaret’s presence she
answered like you asked a question: “The best school in
She was also a Camp Fire Girls and Girl Scouts volunteer, a camp
counselor. When she wasn¹t teaching the children of Bremerton to be
fearless, she taught girls about adventure.
And if she wasn’t teaching it, she was doing it.
She had a thousand children, as she liked to say, although she
never married or had any of her own. She always wanted to be a
teacher. As a girl she used her dolls as pupils and made believe
she was standing in front of a classroom.
“I¹d like to do it again.”
Her voice was ravaged by 17 presidential administrations worth
of stories and conversations and laughter and awkward silences and
possibly curses – she was a perfect lady when we met.
“My voice is crazy.”
She didn¹t apologize for her voice. She didn¹t waste that breath,
and she had more than most will ever have.
She had a pain in her side that made her wince and ask for help.
Her vision and hearing had dulled. She couldn¹t remember the
details of her stories.
But even as her body and mind faded and the things she cherished in
life drifted farther away, people were drawn to her. She inspired a
nurse with her optimism. She fascinated a chaplain. A newspaper
reporter who met her once keeps her photograph by his computer.
Margaret had regrets, at least one that lived with her until she
died, not two weeks after we met.
Those who knew her at the end, her nurse, her niece, said she
talked of a little girl that Margaret had flunked. The only one in
her career. The girl had cried.
Margaret couldn’t recall the details. Why did she flunk the girl?
When? That part was gone, even the girl¹s name. All that remained
was the fact and her sorrow.
“You don¹t know, Margaret, you might have made a positive change in
that girl’s life,” her niece said.
Margaret paused, but didn’t blink. “I still feel so sad that I did.
I don’t think it’s right.”
She also regretted not going to China and India.
Siblings passed through her classroom, one after the other. She
had students who were the children of former students. Her career
started in a one-room rural school house and ended at Navy Yard
City school. She outlived many of her students.
“She’s from another time,” friends said of her. Not that she was an
anachronism; she was a traveler.
It felt like sometimes she knew half of Kitsap County. Or at least
half the county knew her.
“Every time I turned around there was somebody I knew. They say
‘hello’ and I have to try to remember their name.”
She liked opera, the symphony, and ballet, attended all the
concerts she could. She supported Hillary Clinton, “She’s a good
one. She knows how to think.” When the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge
was built she took a trip across.
She also liked watching her kids.
“Fourth-grade romances were fun to watch,” she said.
She liked the naughty children best, the rebels and class clowns.
She shared their sense of adventure.
“They knew how to think.”
Like the naughty children, Margaret didn’t always do what people
She was engaged to a young man, who was so committed he even
started building their house, but Margaret backed out. It was her
mother-in-law-to-be that botched the deal. She had a character flaw
Margaret couldn¹t abide.
“That was our problem,” she said of the young man’s mother. “Too
Margaret grew up in South Kitsap. Her father, Lon, was a rural
letter carrier, and drafted and sold maps of the area. She
graduated from Kitsap High School in 1929 and went on to Pacific
Lutheran College (now University) and the University of
Her big break came in June, 1932, when she landed her first job
in a one-room school house six miles south of Port Orchard, the
Wildwood School, (“12 kids – one problem boy”) where she was paid
$95 a month and an extra $5 for tending the fire and being janitor.
She swept the floor with sawdust and oil. For a restroom they had
an outhouse. For toilet paper they had catalogs. Many kids had to
walk as much as three miles through the woods to get to her
Here are some choice excerpts from Margaret’s diary during her
first years as a teacher.
Sept. 12, 1932 – Another busy day. Robert said we should say
“haint” instead of “ain’t.” Had to untangle cow’s head from
Sept. 13, 1933 – May caught her leg in the seat and couldn’t
get it out. Had to unscrew the seat.
Sept. 14, 1933 – May had to wear raincoat in school because
Jimmy spilled ink on her dress. I washed it out.
She spent seven years teaching primary grades at Pleasant Ridge
school in the Poulsbo district, where many children spoke Finnish
at home. She lived upstairs in the school house. “Every spring we
would hear a lively chorus of frogs,” she wrote in a memoir. “At
the beginning of Spring the frogs had high shrill voices which
deepened as the season passed.”
Then she started at Manette, teaching fourth grade.
“The next school for me was the Old Manette School in Bremerton.
It was so crowded in 1943 that for half a year I taught in the
basement of the old Manette Community Church. There was just a thin
plywood wall between my 4th grade and a kindergarten class, with a
squally kindergarten child. My desk was a shaky old library table
which collapsed before the year was over and an old bookcase which
had to be propped up. I thought I was in a palace when we moved to
the old Mantte building. There we enjoyed the most beautiful view
of the Olympics and the bay. The lunchroom in Manette was in the
basement. Laura Newburn was the cook. The food was delicious. It
was a tiny room way in the back. She cooked and we all ate in the
tiny room. On rainy days the basement was a crowded, noisy
I asked why she retired. She couldn’t remember why. After ending
her career, she saw the world. She traveled around the country and
went to Japan and Europe. She preferred going by train and
For all her travels, she remembered working with children the
There was a chubby girl at camp near Port Blakely on Bainbridge
Island, “Where all the rich people are now,” who didn’t want to go
hiking. This was not something Margaret could understand.
She talked to the girl and learned that she had never owned a new
pair of shoes. Her feet had sores on them, and hurt. It broke her
Margaret believed in camp. For many children, it was the first time
they slept in a bed by themselves, or were taught table
Margaret bought the girl a pair of shoes that fit, and they went
for a walk in the woods.
She had something to say to students: “Don’t be afraid to meet
To teachers: “Love the children and be happy you are doing it.”