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Elise Emanuel clearly recalls the moment she decided to become a teacher: She was a sixth-grader who did not like school and, rather than act out or reject learning outright, she settled on making education better for someone else.
“That’s always been my motivation,” Emanuel said. “I don’t just do it for everyone else. I like it for myself, too.”
This decision would eventually lead her to the Williamsburg-James City County School Division, where she would work as a teacher and a guidance counselor for more than 30 years. Shortly after her retirement she was appointed to the WJCC School Board, which she served on for three, four-year terms before choosing not to seek re-appointment this year.
“I just had an amazing career – being in the right place at the right time, I guess,” Emanuel said.
Former colleagues and friends attest that her solutions-oriented approach reached beyond her classroom or guidance office – her advocacy for all students through leadership roles on various boards is one of the hallmarks of her legacy.
“Her legacy will be an education advocate in all aspects,” said friend and colleague Ruthann Kellum. “I think it will be very different in WJCC. You’re always involved in your community but she has probably been involved since the first year she moved there in one way or another.”
Emanuel taught in Fort Collins, Colo., and at Fort Bragg in North Carolina before beginning a lengthy career in Williamsburg-James City County Schools in 1967. She taught social studies at James Blair High School while earning her master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the College of William & Mary.
Richard Bradshaw, JCC Commissioner of Revenue, said Emanuel was his government teacher at James Blair in the fall of 1969. He said he “really and truly” enjoyed her class but best recalled some of the pranks he and his classmates pulled in her class.
The class was split by a lunch period – “always dangerous with a bunch of high school seniors,” Bradshaw said – and students would occasionally return late to class. One day, the entire class decided to hide in the bathrooms after lunch and walk in 10 minutes late, but Bradshaw said Emanuel would not let that trick go off without a hitch. She “herded” the girls back to class and resumed the lesson, but did not bother to chase down the boys, who all “strolled in” as planned.
“We could do that because we also took our classwork seriously, as seriously as a high school senior will,” Bradshaw said. “She allowed us to play around a little bit. She had a wonderful sense of humor about things like that, which is always a bonus.”
Although he did not follow her career closely after high school, he said he doubts she has lost her sense of humor.
“She’s still got that twinkle in her eye,” Bradshaw said. “If she didn’t, I don’t think she would have been able to survive the school board.”
Not long after she taught Bradshaw’s class, Emanuel left for Europe, where her husband was stationed. She would soon return to James Blair for its final years as a high school and was among the first teachers to open Lafayette High School in 1973.
Emanuel transitioned from teaching to advising students as a guidance counselor in 1977. She would become the department head in the late 1990s and ultimately retire in 2001.
“I particularly liked helping children see everything they could achieve in education,” Emanuel said, adding she enjoyed “action planning” with students and “helping find solutions.”
Don Engelken, the former guidance department head at Lafayette, said Emanuel was a good fit to succeed him because she understood the workings of the school, how the departments operated and everyone in them.
Anne Miller, a counselor who worked and walked alongside Emanuel, literally – she and Emanuel walked Lafayette’s track, rain or shine, in an effort to win a Governor’s exercise award – said she helped her make the same transition from teaching to guidance.
“She’s just a leader, a born leader,” Miller said. “I think that’s why she’s been so effective in her job, because she understands what teaching is all about.”
Emanuel served on-and-off as the president of the Williamsburg-James City Education Association for 15 years. She also served as chairwoman on the Thomas Nelson Community College Board of Directors and the Virginia Retirement System Board of Trustees.
Kellum was part of the Hampton Education Association when she and Emanuel met through a governance board for Hampton Roads area education associations in the 1970s. Both women experienced parallel careers in their respective communities, working as teachers and counselors, becoming political advocates and serving on various boards.
When Emanuel believes in something, Kellum said, she “doesn’t stand down, but does it in a manner that works toward consensus.” She recalled when the state education association made an endorsement that was not supported on the local level, it was Emanuel who led to charge to make the local interests clear to the state.
Emanuel’s ability to give advice and bounce off ideas was valued by the boards and organizations she worked with, Kellum said, but the support she gave her as a friend on a similar life path is what she treasures the most.
“I think people recognize her ability to see situations and analyze them. Not everyone has that ability and not everyone can do that in a listening mode,” Kellum said. “From my perspective, she had the ability to be almost like a mentor.”
Jeanne Zeidler was the chairwoman of the School Board when a 4×4 block schedule was first discussed for Lafayette. She said Emanuel was among a group of administrators, teachers and students who weighed the merits of changing the schedule, and Emanuel was the one who built consensus around the switch.
“She was a tremendous leader, educating herself and then helping people understand what value that would bring,” Zeidler said.
Those were some of the qualities that prompted Zeidler, who also served as City of Williamsburg mayor, and the City Council to appoint Emanuel to represent the city on the WJCC School Board in 2003. While on the School Board, Emanuel served on the WHRO Board and has been involved with the Student Advisory Committee since its inception.
Zeidler said Emanuel is the model of good governance and always kept the big picture in mind.
“You have to be able to not only advocate for your position but listen to the other sides of the other positions to understand the needs of the entire [school] division,” Zeidler said. “I think of the strengths Elise brought, she was always able to see the broader vision and the needs of the entire division.”
Emanuel joined St. Stephen Lutheran Church in the early 2000s where she served on committees and volunteered as a Stephen Minister, someone who is a companion to individuals going through difficult life experiences.
The Rev. Andy Ballentine, pastor at St. Stephen, said her focus on solutions applies to her service to the St. Stephen congregation and the community as a whole.
“I think her contributions have been as one who is a builder of the community,” Ballentine said. “When there has been anxiety, she has been a good peacemaker, working toward resolutions without covering anything up, without papering anything over. Directly, but in a way that is very constructive and helpful.”
During her remarks at the end of the Dec. 15 School Board meeting, Emanuel said it was “time to say goodbye,” but Miller said she does not see her former colleague slowing down anytime soon.
“She’s not going to go into a rocking chair,” Miller said. “She’s going to be doing something she is passionate about now in this new stage of retirement.”