Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School principal Clarissa Piilani Gerdes

Born on Kauai, Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School principal Clarissa Piilani Gerdes (1908-1969) was the daughter of lawyer, engineer, sheriff, legislator and Niumalu resident John Haalelea Coney, whose parents were John Harvey Coney, the high sheriff of the Big Island during the reign of Kamehameha IV, and High Chiefess Kekua Kapu o Kalani, a descendent of the Queen of the Puna district, renowned in the meles of Hawaii.

Her mother was Mary Ellen Coney, who lived in Honolulu in the days of the Hawaiian monarchy and was privileged to be present at the court of King David Kalakaua.

Clarissa Gerdes was a graduate of the University of Hawaii, Class of 1930, along with her husband, John H. Gerdes. They had one child: Mary Ellen Gerdes.

She was an educator on Kauai for 38 years.

In 1947, she was named the principal of Hanamaulu School and later headed Kalaheo and Eleele schools before being named principal of Lihue School in 1954 at its location in Pua Loke.

Lihue School, the forerunner of Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School, was first named Lihue English School and was established in 1881 where the Kauai Economic Opportunity offices are now located on Wehe Rd.

In 1921, Lihue English School, by then called Lihue School, had expanded onto 13 acres west of the original school site, an area that is today occupied by a small central park, government buildings and grounds, and M. Kawamura Enterprises.

Clarissa Gerdes continued on as principal of Lihue School when it moved to Hardy St. beginning in 1957, opened in 1958, and was renamed Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School in 1959 in honor of Kauai educator Elsie Wilcox.

Gerdes held that post until her death.

On the morning of Jan. 6, 1958, 995 children moved in to occupy the new Lihue School on Hardy Street.

With them were principal Gerdes, an assistant principal, 28 regular teachers for grades 1-8, an adjustment class teacher, 4 kindergarten teachers, an office secretary, a typist, a cafeteria manager and 4 helpers, and 7 full and part time janitors.

Hank Soboleski has been a resident of Kauai since the 1960s. Hank’s love of the island and its history has inspired him, in conjunction with The Garden Island Newspaper, to share the island’s history weekly. The collection of these articles can be found here: https://bit.ly/2IfbxL9 and here https://bit.ly/2STw9gi Hank can be reached at hssgms@gmail.com


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