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Who is Nellie E. Brown? Olongapo school finally discovers mystery woman after 71 years |

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Who is Nellie E. Brown? Olongapo school finally discovers mystery woman after 71 years

Jan Milo Severo -
Who is Nellie E. Brown? Olongapo school finally discovers mystery woman after 71 years
Nellie E. Brown Elementary school in Olongapo City / Jan Milo Severo

MANILA, Philippines (Updated April 15, 8:56 a.m.) — Public schools in the country are usually named after the places where these schools are located, local heroes — or even after the schools' patrons and local politicians who commissioned them.

But a certain elementary school in a barangay in Olongapo City was named Nellie E. Brown Elementary School (NEBES) and the school administration, students and alumni did not know who Brown was, so an alumnus' daughter began solving the mystery. 

It all started when Leo de Castro, Philosophy professor at the University of the Philippines, received four birthday cakes from an old grade school friend. They both studied at NEBES. 

His daughter Ellie always asked her dad who Nellie was. Her father, his brothers, and the people they grew up with also didn’t know Nellie.

The official history of NEBES, as documented by the Department of Education, mentioned that Nellie was a Peace Corps volunteer who helped build the school. 

But the timing did not match: the Peace Corps started only in 1961, while the school was founded in 1953.

What Ellie thought would be a quick Google search turned out to be an adventure that lasted more than two years — until the US National Archives and Records Administration finally replied to Ellie's e-mail, giving her a link of all news about Nellie in the United States. From there, Ellie found a single article about Nellie E. Brown. 

According to the news article, in 1953, Olongapo was still being governed as part of the US Naval Base Reservation. At that time, a commander named Roger Brown Nickerson was overseeing the construction of an elementary school. When it was finally time to name the school, he decided to name it after his own kindergarten teacher back in Bangor, Maine. 

“Sa hinaba-haba ng adventure ay nahanap din natin si Nellie,” Ellie told students, alumni and faculty of the school, which drew applause and tears from the crowd. 

Her audience was composed of NEBES’ current students and faculty, former and retired teachers and principals, alumni, Olongapo Historical Society members, local government representatives and Department of Education representatives.

The reveal comes after 646 days of research alongside five National Geographic Explorers and De Castro’s own family and friends. The day was called the "Olongapo Heritage Fair," where a program filled with messages from the community and an interactive exhibit for both students and alumni were organized by the Finding Nellie Team with support from Olongapo City Vice Mayor Jong Cortez and West Bajac-Bajac Barangay Captain Billy Capistrano. 

Nellie Eliza Brown was born on June 9, 1865 in Enfield, Massachusetts. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1888 and Chicago Kindergarten College in 1896. In Bangor, Maine, she pioneered the education of kindergarten teachers and became the supervisor of kindergartens and principal of the Bangor Kindergarten Training School. She taught kindergarten for 26 years.

She did not establish NEBES nor was she a former teacher there – as many NEBES alumni and Olongapo citizens first thought her to be. Instead, one of her students, Roger Brown Nickerson, grew up to be a Captain on the US Navy and was eventually stationed in Subic Bay as a Commander from 1952 to 1953. He established NEBES in 1953 and named it after his favorite teacher, Nellie E. Brown. She passed away on February 26, 1954, a year after the school was built.

De Castro was able to find the answer after corresponding with the US National Archives and Records Administration, which led her to go on and look up everything she has since found out about Nellie E. Brown from different stakeholders and sources. It seemed like a simple resolution after almost two years of research, but in her speech revealing Brown, De Castro shared that “the story of Finding Nellie isn't just about Nellie E. Brown and Commander Nickerson. In Finding Nellie, we also got to find the people who have built and made this community in Olongapo what it is."

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