Russell Nelson, Teacher


93 year-old WWII vet taught in Wakefield, Massachusetts for 30 years

The school calendar is so engrained in most of us that the arrival of September each year invariably evokes memories our own school days. It may only be a passing memory of a classroom, a classmate or a favorite teacher.

I took things a step further this year and decided to look up my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Russell Nelson.

Mr. Nelson was born in 1916. He is a veteran of World War II and he taught in Wakefield (MA) public schools for over 30 years. He’s 93 years old, and I quickly realized that I was in the presence of the same sharp wit and playful sense of humor that I remembered from his classroom at Wakefield Junior High School in 1964.

“I was a pupil of yours?” he teased on the phone after I identified myself as a former student. He said he’d be happy to talk to me and invited me to come right over.

We sat at the kitchen table of the home on Chapman Rd. that he and his late wife Priscilla bought in 1950 for $10,400.

“The yard goes back to what we used to call ‘the swamp,’ Nelson says. “But don’t call it ‘the swamp’ now,” he warns with a chuckle. “It’s now called ‘Heron Pond.’ That place has gone up in class – and it’s gone up in price.”

Nelson grew up poor in Essex, Massachusetts. “Poverty attended my early years,” Nelson recalled. “My mother and father had eight children. They couldn’t afford that many. We didn’t have electricity and we didn’t have an indoor toilet.”

Because it was economical, he recalls that beef stew was a staple of the Nelson dinner table, “without much beef, and cheap cuts.”

After high school, Nelson was able to attend a year of college in Pomona, California, thanks to the good graces of his church minister. He came back, met Priscilla, got married and that was the end of college – for the time being.

He worked as a machinist until the war came and he entered the army. He received tank training at Fort Knox and became “a pretty good tank man.” As the war shifted largely to the Pacific, Nelson spent two years in the war zone and saw action in at least four or five battles.

He was part of the amphibious tank assault that was instrumental in taking the island of Leyte in the Philippines. He recalled his amphibious tank unit approaching the beach amid huge waves washing in and out.

“You go up on the beach, a big wave catches you and you make another try.” Nelson explained, adding that if your tank got turned sideways, the waves could flip you over. “You go upside-down, everybody dies. As scared as I was in some of the battles, I never was so scared as I was of going down in that tank. I didn’t want to die that way.”

Nelson also saw action at Ie Shima, which he describes as “one nest of trouble. We lost people there.” Ie Shima is where famous newspaper correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese gunfire. “I’ll bet Ernie Pyle wasn’t 500 yards from us when he died,” Nelson says. After Ie Shima, Nelson saw action at Okinawa.

Following the war, Nelson finished college at Boston University and taught for a year in Connecticut before he was hired in 1950 to teach sixth grade at the Lincoln School in Wakefield. He was the first male to teach at the school.

Asked why he decided to go into teaching he said, “That’s easy – I love children. I always felt that children were ‘numero uno.’”

Nelson and his wife Priscilla raised four children of their own, Joan, Dana, Debbie and Eric, of whom he is quite proud. “They’ve all done well,” he says, noting that all four have master’s degrees and one has a Ph.D. That pleases him, considering that of his parents’ eight children he was the only one to attend college.

At the Lincoln School, he walked into classroom of 40 students. There were no teacher’s aides in those days, he points out. “We didn’t know what a teacher’s aide was,” Nelson says. That class was so rowdy, Nelson recalls, that their previous year’s teacher had a nervous breakdown and consequently the class hadn’t learned much in fifth grade.
Lincoln School building
“Training those kids to behave was my first chore,” Nelson says. “Teaching them something was the second.” Somehow, he accomplished both. “They gained two years of achievement under my tutelage – and learned to behave.”

Nelson says that his attitude toward teaching and discipline in the classroom was always the same.

“I don’t think I ever raised my voice,” he says. “I believed in fairness and rightness.”

But his successful approach with students earned him the resentment of some of the more old-fashioned teachers at the Lincoln School. They complained to the principal, who in turn approached Nelson.

“Russ, I need to talk to you,” the Principal said. “The other teachers are squawking about you.”

Nelson apologized to the principal, explaining that he was doing the best he could and believed he was making progress with the kids.

The principal interrupted. “I like what you’re doing,” he told Nelson. “Keep it up.”

“That was all I needed,” Nelson recalls. “I had a guy that stood behind me. Not all principals did that.”

After the Lincoln School, Nelson taught at the Atwell Jr. High School and later at the Junior High on Farm St., in the building that is now the High School.

After he’d been teaching for a while, Nelson realized that if he was going to put his own four kids through college, it would require more money than he was earning as a teacher. “Teachers are underpaid,” he stresses.

To supplement his income, he opened the Wakefield Auto School from an office in the Taylor Building at Main and Lincoln streets. He hired four teachers and bought three cars (one standard transmission and two automatic). He estimates that in the 10 years that he ran it, Wakefield Auto School taught well over a thousand people to drive.

The business was successful enough that he was able to buy himself a 25-foot cabin cruiser, which he sailed to Cape Cod and as far north as Portland, Maine.

In addition to his more than three decades as a teacher, Nelson was Wakefield’s very first system-wide School Adjustment Counselor for children below grade 7, serving in that capacity for 12 years.

“I loved teaching and I love children,” Nelson says. “You can make more money doing something else,” he acknowledges, admitting with a twinkle in his eye, “It helps to have nice vacations. We do enjoy those.”

But in all, Nelson’s experience leads him to one conclusion.

“If I came back,” he says, “I’d probably be a teacher again.”

[This story originally appeared in the September 4, 2009 Wakefield Daily Item.]

9 Responses to “Russell Nelson, Teacher”

  1. He sounds like a wonderful man and a great teacher, and I hope he gives you an A-plus on this piece! It’s good to read a life-story article like this that isn’t an obituary. It’s good to appreciate people while they are still alive, and good to record their stories while they are still around to tell them!

  2. Appreciate the comment; are you from Wakefield?

  3. 3 Mark Sardella

    A couple of personal anecdotes didn’t make it into the main story, but I’ll share them here.

    As Mr. Nelson says, his approach to classroom discipline was rooted in “fairness and rightness.” My own experience bears that out. I remember that Mr. Nelson had a rule in our 8th grade English class. If you did not complete the homework assignment, you had to come back to his classroom after school and do it. No excuses. One day in class, Mr. Nelson asked me a question related to the previous day’s homework assignment. I admitted that I hadn’t done the right asignment. (Instead of doing, say, Exercise 6 in Chapter 5, I had mistakenly done Exercise 5 in Chapter 6.) After he collected the homework that day, he named three or four kids who had to come back after school. He didn’t mention my name. I assumed it was just an oversight, so I figured I’d better clarify matters. I went up to him after class and asked if he wanted me to come after school.

    “No,” he said. “Because I felt that you were sincere.”

    Mr. Nelson is known for what he calls his “nonsensical sense of humor.” Our class was a always a bit loud. We had a spelling test once a week. Mr. Nelson would say each word on the test, and then use it in a sentence. I remember that one of the words on a spelling test was “moisture.”

    “Moisture be so noisy?” Mr. Nelson asked, using the word in a sentence.

  4. Russell Nelson has four children named Dana, Joan, Deb, and Eric. Daniel was an error.

  5. 5 Mark Sardella

    I’ve corrected Dana’s name in the story. I apologize for the error, which I attribute to the illegible quality of my notes.

  6. Russell Nelson passed away peacefully October 21, 2009.

  7. 7 Brian DeSousa

    I met Mr. Nelson in 1979 when he was the guidance counselor at Atwell. I don’t recall why I went to see him, but I noticed he had a chess set in his office. It turned out he was an avid player, good enough to play in local tournaments. We would play often after hours – at first, he had to go easy on me, but by the end of the school year I was good enough to beat him consistently even when he was playing his best. Opportunities to play other kids my strength were quite limited, so he suggested that I play in tournaments against adults. I took that advice to heart, and I eventually reached the level of National Master (the top 1% of tournament players) just after college. Although most of my improvement was through self-study and the school of hard knocks, I still consider Mr. Nelson my one and only chess coach. I wish I had the chance to let him know how things turned out and thank him before he left this world.

    • 8 Joyce Beckstrom

      Brian, Russell spoke of you every time he mentioned chess tp anyone and said you were “gifted” in beating him so soon after learning the game. He was so proud of you and wondered how your life turned out, knowing you would be a success in anything you do.
      Joyce, his companion more than 30 years.

      • 9 Brian DeSousa

        Thanks Joyce, this is very wonderful to hear. The stress during the pandemic has caused me to think about what has been important in my life, and I now realize Mr. Nelson had much more of a positive impact than I could ever have imagined. A couple years after Atwell, when I was in junior high, I was suffering from what I now know to be undiagnosed severe depression and therefore didn’t have any help to cope with it. Although I had lost contact with Mr. Nelson by then, the knowledge and confidence from him that I could succeed at anything if I had worked hard enough gave me the strength to pull through and know that better days would come. Indeed, things have turned out quite well for me, after college I moved to Southern California where I traveled the world as an engineering manager for a Fortune 500 company for 20 years, followed by staying closer to home with my family while working as an engineering consultant for the last 10 years.

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