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Week 34: Dana Nelson

Dear Batter Up friends, meet Dana Nelson—a pillar in the community and one of the most giving spirits I’ve ever seen.

Dana was nominated by his wife Lee Nelson. In her nomination email Lee shared with me a beautiful tribute that had been written about Dana by a close friend who threw him a huge party under the premise, “Why wait until he is gone to celebrate his life?” I could never write anything as in-depth and beautiful as what was sent to me, so I’m going to share excerpts with you so you can get a true sense of how beautiful this man is.

 

“Dana Nelson’s is a story in need of telling. When describing Dana a friend calls him ‘Mr. Highway to Heaven’, a reference to the ‘80’s TV show with Michael Landon as an earth angel doing good deeds surreptitiously from his roaming RV. In the 111 episodes the show aired, I doubt Michael Landon helped as many people as Dana has. At church, he is referred to by friends as ‘St. Dan.’…

…Dana grew up in the small town of Rumney, NH (pop. 1000) at the southern tip of the White Mountains. He was the second son of an antiques dealer/furniture maker and homemaker. Although they didn’t have much, others in their community had even less. Before any holiday, Dana noticed that his father would disappear for several hours. Unbeknownst to his sons, he was delivering care packages to those in need. As they grew older the boys were awed by the extent to which their parents cared for others in this small community.

Dana enrolled at nearby Plymouth State College at eighteen. This was the late sixties and his older brother was already serving in Vietnam. He enlisted in the army during his senior year and was sent to Vietnam. [Upon returning] to college after [the war he met] his wife, Lee. He worked for other employers for several years, experiencing broken promises and endured unpleasant work environments and critical, demanding managers. When an opportunity presented itself, he decided, he would go into business for himself. He vowed to treat people better than he’d been treated and hoped to create a work environment where people felt comfortable, secure and appreciated. No one should dread going to work each day. [The Nelsons] moved to North Carolina in April, 1978 to be closer to [family]. After moving to Virginia in July 1979, an opportunity arose to start Commonwealth Wholesale, a specialty distributor of residential roofing and insulation in August 1982…In 25 years, it grew to a seven-person operation…His business associate of 21 years says, ‘Dana is the most generous person I’ve seen in my life. If anyone needs help, he’s there. Dana read in the paper about a family whose house burned down. He didn’t know them from Adam. Dana donated shingles, contacted others in the construction business and organized labor to rebuild their house. That’s just the kind of person he is. He’d give you his last dollar, even if it meant he wouldn’t eat that day.’ He built & operated a wonderful business until he retired in August 2012.

Not surprisingly, Dana became involved in the local schools where [the Neslons] daughters attended. Though the girls are now grown and living on their own, Dana continued to be involved with their schools for many more years. The high school principal recalled, ‘Dana has done things that have brought whole families to tears. There is no depth to his heart when it comes to helping other people…The list of his involvement in school related activities is too numerous to mention. [And] (t)he former Hanover County school superintendent [had this to say]:

‘Dana Nelson is a community jewel and his commitment to our public schools is without parallel. He is personally responsible for funding full rides of two and four-year college careers for any number of Hanover County graduates. This alone is remarkable. But even more so, he identifies those students and families in need based on his assessment of their potential, quietly letting them know that they have someone who is willing to launch their lives this way. He is powerful in this way.’

Dana has made many targeted investments across our school system, contributing directly to individual teachers’ professional development plans. He performs magic this way for teachers who otherwise may not have access to the special funding needed to realize new professional journeys.’

In 1997 Dana was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS. Two years later he began sponsoring the Hanover MS support group…Dana has coordinated annual limo trips to DC so that support group members can be seen by a highly regarded MS specialist there. The doctor sets aside the entire day for the group. Dana coordinates (and funds) the trip, schedules appointments and arranges for lunch afterward. Spouses are welcome and encouraged to come along. Annually he sponsors ‘Team Hanover’ in the Richmond MS Walk. In the past, he has hosted an annual ice cream social for the MS community, and funds scholarships for students of parents with MS…It’s rumored that he has helped pay for medication, assistive devices, hospital stays and Dr. office visits. One member shares, ‘Dana is one of the most giving people…he made it possible for me to get a chair lift plus arranged for it to be installed. This made it possible for me to remain in my two-level home. He always looks beyond his own disability.’

Dana’s most recent enterprise, started in 2004, is ‘Operation Hope,’ an organization committed to building playgrounds for children with disabilities. In the local Rotary newsletter, a lifelong friend of Dana’s wrote, ‘We are committed to realizing the dream of Dana Nelson, a local business leader who founded Operation Hope, to have playgrounds where kids of all abilities are unlimited in play.’…

When asked, ‘Where did you get your giving, caring spirit? Your upbringing, the war experience?’ Dana admits both made a lasting impression on him…He credits his parent’s reputation in Rumney, NH where townspeople still ask, ‘What would the Nelsons do?’…When asked if he had any advice for others, he says, ‘Make the best of each day and always look to move forward. Each day is extra—we should be grateful for it.’

 

Dana Nelson’s giving spirit is enormous and humbling. He is exactly the kind of person for whom Batter Up was created and I jumped at the chance to honor him. Lee and I emailed back and forth on delivery details for a while and we finally settled on a Sunday afternoon delivery at their home. When I arrived, the living room was full of family and friends waiting for the big surprise. I walked in, did my typically explaining of who I was and why I was there, and presented the cake. Lee and her daughters immediately cut the cake and passed out pieces while I got the opportunity to spend some time with everyone.

Dana told me about his role in his daughter’s school. When the girls were young Lee told him it was time to stop fishing and get involved—and so he did. He would speak at the high school on a regular basis as well as stay involved with his daughters extracurriculars. They were active in the chorus and would often go on chorus trips. There were many students that couldn’t afford to go on these trips over the years, so Dana quietly paid for anyone who couldn’t afford it. When they were invited to go to London—a trip that costs thousands of dollars—Dana wrote a check to make sure that anyone who couldn’t afford the trip didn’t miss the opportunity. He also told me that until 2008 his business supplied the roofing materials for every single Habitat for Humanity house in the Hanover area.

The list of his contributions goes on and on—most recently with the Operation Hope playgrounds which have inspired other cities to follow Dana’s lead and build similar playground facilities. And, despite the affect that the MS has had on him physically, he continues to work for others. I’m sure there is more to come.

Lee mentioned to me that Cheesecake was one of Dana’s favorites, so that’s what he got—a Cinnamon Roll Cheesecake. This week’s recipe comes from a blog who’s name I’m in love with—The Girl Who Ate Everything. You can find the recipe for it here. If you love cheesecake and you love cinnamon rolls, then click on this link and make this cake this weekend. It is ohmyfreakinglawd heaven. Ironic that it went to a true angel this week.