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Elise H. Clarke, a longtime city public schools educator active in her Roman Catholic church, dies

Elise H. Clarke
Elise H. Clarke (handout)

Elise H. Clarke, an elementary school educator who taught in city public schools for more than three decades and was active in her Roman Catholic church, died March 21 of complications from dementia at her home in Pikesville. She was 99.

“She was an excellent teacher, just excellent,” said Dr. Delores F. Baden, former principal of Edgewood Elementary School. “She worked with small children and taught them so explicitly. She was also a wonderful staff member and just wonderful to me. I just loved her, and it’s important when teachers and principals like one another.”

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The former Elise Beatrice Harris, daughter of Dr. Bernard Harris Sr., a physician and surgeon, and his wife, Ethel Travers Harris, a schoolteacher, was born and raised in East Baltimore. Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School on North Caroline Street is named for her father.

“She came from a very close-knit East Baltimore family,” her daughter, Brenda Elise Clarke Blount of Pikesville, said in a telephone interview.

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As a young girl, Mrs. Clarke was a member of the MeDeSo Club.

After graduating in 1937 from Frederick Douglass High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin in 1941 from what is now Morgan State University. She subsequently obtained a master’s degree in elementary education from what is now Loyola University Maryland.

While attending Morgan, she was inducted into the Alpha Gamma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and was honored as the Sweetheart of Alpha Iota chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

She was married in 1943 to her high school sweetheart, Jesse Benjamin Clarke Jr., owner of the Clarke Printing Press Co., which was founded on Druid Hill Avenue by his father after World War I.

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In 1950, Mrs. Clarke began her teaching career in city public schools as a kindergarten through second grade teacher at Henry Highland Garnet Elementary School and later joined the faculty of Edgewood Elementary School near Walbrook Junction.

“She taught first graders, and they got off to a wonderful start because of Elise,” Dr. Baden said.

Mrs. Clarke was far from being an intimidating teacher, and her students easily responded to her.

“She was a quiet sophisticated lady,” recalled Dr. Baden, who later retired from Montgomery County Public Schools. “She was not outgoing or loud but very sedate.”

Mrs. Clarke was 30 years old when she lost complete sight in her left eye, but that did not “deter her from fulfilling her obligations as a teacher, wife and mother,” her daughter wrote in a biographical profile. “She maintained active membership in school, church and family and social obligations. In 1997, when she became totally blind, she again demonstrated her strong faith in God and accepted her blindness by continuing daily activities with zest and purpose.”

After she went blind in her left eye, Mrs. Clarke was still able to drive her car, and before becoming totally blind she enrolled in the Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, from which she received training that enabled her to live independently.

Mrs. Clarke retired in 1981.

“During her career as an educator, she taught thousands of youngsters, molding their tender minds, while her influence as a positive role model enabled them to understand themselves as well as to identify and expand their individual abilities,” her daughter wrote. “Her former students represent all walks of life and many of them credit her for the impact she had on their lives.”

“She was adored,” Ms. Blount said in a telephone interview. “We’d be out somewhere and a former student would stop her and say, ‘I’m where I am today because of you.’ ”

Raised a Methodist and a member of Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church, as a young person she was a member of the children’s choir, Sunday school and other organizations affiliated with the church.

Mrs. Clarke made the spiritual journey to the Roman Catholic Church when she was 20.

“She lived two blocks from St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, and she had friends there,” her daughter said. “Her parents were not judgmental and gave their consent for her to convert to Catholicism. Her future husband was a Catholic, and two of her brothers converted and joined St. Francis Xavier.”

She added: “She found it very gratifying and it was a personal decision and she remained a devout Catholic throughout the rest of her life.”

After moving to West Baltimore, Mrs. Clarke became a communicant of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, and in 1954 she and her family joined St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, where she remained an active parishioner until her death.

She was secretary of the church treasury, volunteered in the soup kitchen and was an active member of the Ladies of Charity.

“Ladies of Charity is an organization that gives aid to people in need. We try and help people who have trouble paying the rent, purchasing food, or have religious or other needs,” said Joan Scott, the organization’s president.

“Elise was a very loving, giving and friendly person, and because she was blind, she was somewhat limited in what she could do, but she remained active in all the things we tried to do. She was very dedicated to the Ladies of Charity,” Mrs. Scott said. “If people had needs, she was the first to help them and would always go the extra mile to help. We’re very sorry to have lost her.”

After retiring, Mrs. Clarke volunteered endless hours at the old Liberty Medical Center and Provident Hospital.

Mrs. Clarke was also a member of the Baltimore chapter of the National Epicureans, Jack and Jill of America, and the Ain’t Got No Names, or simply AGNNs, a women’s social group, her daughter explained.

Mrs. Clarke enjoyed traveling and visited Europe and Mexico. She liked visiting Cape May, New Jersey, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in South Carolina, and spending time at a family summer home on the Magothy River in Pasadena.

Other hobbies included attending Broadway shows, hosting holiday events for family and friends, cooking, dancing, sewing, crocheting and gardening.

Last year, Mrs. Clarke was invited to share her story in a short documentary film of her life in Baltimore as part of the City of Neighborhoods Black History Month Event sponsored by the city and the Johns Hopkins University.

Her husband died in 1963, and her companion, William E. Selby, a retired Baltimore and Ohio Railroad official, “who served as her eyes for so many years,” her daughter said, died in 2005.

Plans for a memorial Mass are incomplete because of the pandemic.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.

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