Celebrating a Career in Education



A long line of cars wound its way toward Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts, but this wasn’t the average end-of-day carpool line.

Each vehicle bore colorful signs reading “Gretchen we love you!,” “You are an inspiration to all of us!,” and “Thank you for everything!”

At the start of the line, standing in front of the school surrounded by balloons and bouquets of flowers, was principal Gretchen Keefner, who was retiring after 44 years in education.

Because the school had been closed for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic — students finished out the academic year working remotely from home — students, parents and teachers organized the socially distant parade send-off to celebrate Keefner’s contributions.

Nikki Lucas has been named the new principal at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts. She had been assistant principal at the school for the past five years.

Keefner said she was drawn to a career in education during high school: “During my senior year in high school, we took a field trip to a state institution for the mentally disabled. When I got home that night, I told my mom that I knew that I want to work with children with special needs in schools.”

She studied student speech and language therapy at the University of Akron and got her start as a speech pathologist for students with severe mental disabilities in Pennsylvania.

Twenty-two of her 44 years in education were spent in Beaufort County, where she worked with schools including Daufuskie Elementary School and Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts.

Over the years, she’s dealt with everything from hurricanes to the current pandemic, but she always found joy in her students.

“Over the years, there has not been a day that has gone by that children have not made me smile,” she said. “Joy has also come from children doing something they couldn’t do before.”

She also appreciated the community’s investment in students’ education, whether it was the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina providing field trips for students to experience theater and dance performances, the school’s Gullah Family Festival offering cultural programing, or Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program that brings musicians and instruments into Hilton Head classrooms so students can experience a full orchestra performance.

“It’s also been a joy to work with programs like the Boys & Girls Club, Neighborhood Outreach Connection and the Island Rec Center to support so many of our students after school with tutoring, enrichment opportunities and supervised quality recreation programs,” Keefner said. During her time in education, Keefner also worked hard to help enrich the lives of her fellow teachers, supporting them in their quests for grants from groups like the Foundation for Excellence, the Palmetto Electric Cooperative or the Island School Council for the Arts.

“My best memories are from the dayto- day work and working with such an amazing staff during my tenure in Hilton Head,” she said.

In retirement, Keefner and her husband, Rich, along with their dog, Charley, plan to move into a condo and focus on their hobbies. But she will always treasure her time in education.

“My long workdays have been filled with joy because of the love and support that the entire Hilton Head community has given me, the staff and especially the students,” she said. “My sincere thanks to all of the people that have helped to make Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts the best place in the world for kids.”