As GAC opened its doors for the first time in 1968, Nilas and Ellen Manley took a step of faith and enrolled their two eldest daughters Debra and Cathy. In the years that followed, all eight Manley children joined the GAC family, with seven eventually graduating from GAC. Both Ellen and Nilas went to work as involved, dedicated parents, supportive of young GAC with their time, wisdom, resources, and energy.
In 1977, Nilas was named to the GACS Board of Trustees, becoming the first Black Board member. He continued to serve with great dedication until 1998. For decades, Ellen dedicated herself to GAC, working as the first administrative assistant to the Elementary School principal and also doing a great deal of volunteer work to improve GAC. Together, they and their children shaped GAC with their deep commitment to Christ, and toward deeper inclusion of the full family of God.
Today, 52 years after their first steps of faith, the Nilas and Ellen Manley Plaza has been named in their honor and memory. Many people influence our individual and collective lives and purpose; then a few make a lasting impact. In the first decades of GAC, the Manleys were difference makers. They were deeply engaged in virtually every aspect of GAC’s emerging culture and mission. Whether in a class or at school functions, from arts to music to athletics, you’d find yourself with one or more of the Manley children, or gathered in a parent function or spectator crowd with their steadfast Mother and Father. Their children, now adults, also made their own positive marks on GAC.
After serving in the Air Force and a veteran of three wars, Nilas and Ellen raised their family in Atlanta. They believed deeply in their God-given responsibility to raise their children with great faith and high caliber learning combined. From their personal commitment to advance their children, to engagement in board governance, the Manleys helped further GAC’s focus on faith and learning. And all of GAC was made better.
Leading the Way in Faith, Diversity, and Inclusion
The Civil Rights era was a time of great tension, and often schools were the battleground. Well after Brown vs Board of Education (1954), school systems found ways to maintain institutional racism and segregation through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Tragically, many private and Christian schools were established as “segregation academies,” either publicly or quietly acknowledging their central goals. In another landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional in the case of Engel v. Vitale (1962). GAC launched during that time with the purpose to provide a “quality education in a Christian environment” with one the core goals of being a racially integrated school,” remarked Jesse Long in his book The Early Years. Leaders then believed they couldn’t be otherwise and still be Christian.
Nilas and Ellen both thought that education should support their faith and further Christian diversity, so they invested their lives in it. That also meant taking the leap to become personally engaged early with their children’s school. Nilas helped with fundraising. Ellen joined moms leadership and service groups like L.A.C.E. (GAC’s Ladies Association for Christian Education). And year after year, brought more of their eight children into the GAC family. Chris Manley (‘85) remembers his parents’ “Intentional and faith driven lives...lives
of impact and service.”
The Manleys led in church progress too. Dr. David Fincher, GAC Chancellor, remembers “My first church home in Atlanta as a young adult was Moreland Avenue Church of Christ, one of the very few integrated churches in Atlanta then. I was shepherded there by a handful of elders--including Nilas Manley. As I came to teach and then serve as an administrator at GAC, there again as one of my leaders was board member—Nilas Manley. Mr. Manley was one of my “bosses” everywhere I went: in my spiritual growth at church, in GAC decision-making. His always gentle, wise guidance affected me in just about every aspect of my young adult Christian life and work.” Cathy Manley Cooper (GAC, ‘73) remembered that “Our parents provided needed strengthening for GAC, and we were up to the task. But that task was always first and foremost that we are children of God, co-heirs with Christ and that the color of our skin was simply our outer shell. Yes, it brought and still brings more than its share of challenges. But we were created by an all-knowing being who knew that we would strive to help others see beyond our outer shells into the persons of our very being and the amazing spirit residing within.”
Lasting Accomplishments. Yet Seldom Easy
Though there was a deep desire by many for GAC to be inclusive and diverse, that didn’t mean acceptance by all, nor an easy path. Growing through adolescence is challenging, no matter what. Going to a new Christian school added to the complexity of teen life. Tony Manley (GAC, ‘76): “This was the mid to late 1960s, and it was not-so-good a time to be a black male teenager living in a black community but going to a private (predominantly) white high school. This was a turbulent time not only in our public society but also in the church. I thought I wanted to go to public school, but Dad wanted me to have the best there was to offer and told me so more than once… No it was not always easy, but with my parents behind me and many of the leaders at GAC, I persevered.”
Mary Manley Rice (GAC, ‘74 ) points to the racial strife of our current times, and a hurtful time her parents experienced: “These past two months have been very difficult nationally. The atmosphere [today] is so charged as painful realizations are made. (GAC’s founding President) Jesse Long took a stand against a racial slur toward my parents in the 1970s by another student’s father at an Appreciation Dinner. Jesse called the father and explained GAC would not tolerate that type of behavior. David Fincher recounted the incident at my mother’s funeral. David clarified GAC’s stance for inclusion and equity for all. I appreciate what GAC represents and [the] work it is doing.”
Yet the Manleys were not looking for the “easy” road. Cathy saw that resolute commitment in her parents. “They saw a purpose worth pursuing in a godly and caring fashion,” she offered. “I would say that my parents led a providential life. Dad and Mom were not the type of people to just give up when things got tough. They were raised in families where backing down was not an option. There was always some way to get things done. I’d like to think that they passed that trait on to us kids.”
Impact and an Enduring Remembrance
After a life of service, Nilas Manley passed away in 2009. Ellen continued caring for others as loving mom and grandmother until her own homecoming to God in 2019. Dr. Fincher was asked to conduct Ellen’s funeral and recalls “It was my honor to recall my time with the family on the GAC campus. Even with eight children, the Manleys gave generously of time, talents, and financial resources to the school. Their children were truly special and beloved. And that says something about the parents who shaped them. The Manleys were equal partners in causes for God, and they taught me and others so much. Both because of the Manleys, Jesse’s full commitment, and GAC’s young board of that time, inclusion of the full family of God is built into GAC’s DNA today.”
Current Chair of the GACS Board of Trustees, Fernando Nasmyth said, “Hearing stories about the Manleys from those who knew them well is a testament to their deep faith in God and their service to our country. Their love for their children was evident in the sacrifices they made to ensure that they were nurtured in a loving community of faith. Nilas and Ellen are a lasting example for all of GAC, and for that we are eternally grateful.”
With Ellen’s passing, discussion began in late 2019 about a lasting GAC remembrance of the Manley’s legacy, among some Trustees and administrators. Through the years, there have been several honorary namings of parts of the campus for significant difference-makers, such as Hollis Smith, Clif Jones, Jimmy and Jean Jones, H.A. Fincher, Jackie Bradford and others.
As a result, at the next Board meeting in the Fall of 2020, the GAC Board of Trustees unanimously approved the naming of The Nilas and Ellen Manley Plaza. In the heart of campus and adjacent to GAC’s newly expanded GAC Park and Fincher Student-Family Center, the Manley Plaza is a hub of activity and is used daily by students from kindergarten through high school. It is the central outdoor walkway between today’s Combee Elementary Complex and the Middle and High Schools’ cluster of buildings. Appropriate signage with a brief biography is now being designed, with a dedication day planned for early 2021.
Jim Combee, GACS Board Chair Emeritus, was glad for the opportunity to recognize long time partners. “I’ve known and respected the Manley family for many years, first serving with Nilas on the Board of Georgia Agape and also the GACS Board of Trustees. This honor of the family is well deserved and I’m delighted that this memorial has come to life.”
Naming of Manley Plaza: A Gathering Place for All
“I’m so thankful for Nilas and Ellen Manley—their exemplary family, and exemplary commitment to GAC and Christian education that is the essence of our mission,” says GAC President, Dr. Scott Harsh. “While we are proud of their early leadership, along with others, we see so much more that needs to be done. Our commitment to ensuring an authentic “place at the table” for all of God’s family is more resolute than ever. And you will see the heart of the Manleys in our intentional steps ahead.”
The GAC of the 2020’s has built new pathways to an even more inclusive and godly community. Yet some people had to be the Trailblazers. Nilas and Ellen Manley embraced that call with their life and children. Their godly dream for GAC will go forward.
"I am always so very proud to share with others that I attended this great school and that my family integrated its halls, although it wasn’t until many years later that I realized the significance of that work. The firm foundation that was set for me and my siblings propelled us on and further defined us as children of God.” - Cathy Manley Cooper '73