Russ Nelson has doubled down on retirement-with-purpose since the death of his wife, Nancy Allin Nelson, last August following her 16-month struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Nelson, 74, sold his majority interest in commercial real estate firm Nelson, Tietz & Hoye to senior management in 2017.
He looked forward to joining Nancy in an active retirement around family, friends, travel and volunteerism.
They met at West High in Madison, Wis., in the 1960s.
"I was shocked when she got sick," Russ Nelson said. "She ran a half-marathon at 65. Here she was at 71, with cancer. She never smoked. Ate well, drank moderately. But pancreatic cancer doesn't care.
"I think I got really emotional only once and crawled into the corner. She got kind of mad at me about that. But we lived in hope. And she told us to find our joy."
Through the ups and downs of treatment, Nancy focused on her good fortune. She wrote a book called "Joy!" in 2019, illustrated with her own photographs. It helped a time of struggle also be a "very rich and full year," her husband said. In 2020, she compiled a second book of photos and thoughts called "Gratitude," for "the success of the treatments and the extra time I have been given."
In 1989, she founded the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting, later renamed Teenwise Minnesota.
Nancy started her social service career with the Family Partnership, which works with low-income families and vulnerable kids. She served as an employee or board member for 35 years. The newly refurbished headquarters of the Family Partnership is at Bloomington Avenue and E. Lake Street.
The facility includes the "Four Directions" preschool and early-childhood learning center, predominantly serving American Indian families. Russ Nelson and other generous donors he solicited helped acquire and redevelop an old commercial building that will benefit hundreds of low-income families annually.
The board wanted to name the preschool's main room for Nancy Nelson. She didn't want that. Nancy loved loons, and so it became the "Loon Room."
The couple also were volunteers and funders with the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, Como Park Zoo and other causes. Nancy told Russ that he needed to stay busy after her death.
"Nancy told me, 'I want you to find your joy every day,'" Nelson recalled. "Your family, friends and community needs you and you will need them. I am guided by that.
"I had a successful career at NTH and all those real estate projects. On the home front and in nonprofit work, she was the lead. I did what she wanted. She had good judgment and common sense. And she touched a lot of people in meaningful ways."
Nelson and NTH managed transactions that involved new headquarters for U.S. Bancorp, Xcel Energy and the former Dain Rauscher in Minneapolis; Health Partners in Bloomington; and Ecolab in St. Paul. There were many more deals over 30 years that changed the Minneapolis and St. Paul skylines.
A onetime chairman of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, Nelson helped create the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and the district ambassadors, who increased hospitality and safety, and also cleanliness and recycling. He's still a volunteer.
He established a mentoring program for real estate students with Prof. Mary Daugherty at the University of St. Thomas business school. He's helping the University of Minnesota with real estate issues. And he's working with the schools and industry to attract more minority talent. He doesn't take any money. He appreciates the opportunity and thanks.
Nelson, father of three and grandfather of seven, has been gratefully sober for 35 years. You need to be sharp when you hang out weekly with 5-year-old twin grandchildren.
Nelson is helping granddaughter Sylvie, who lives in England, write a book about the last year. It's called: "Marvelous Ms. Mabel: How Our Golden Doodle Helped Us Get Through the Pandemic." It's being published by Minnesota Children's Press of Grand Marais, the publisher of Nancy Nelson's two books.
Richard Leider, author and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, talks about the importance of "purpose" in life and retirement.
And Dr. Balkrishna Jahagirdar, Nancy's cancer doctor at St. Paul's Regions Hospital, told Russ that surviving spouses who do the best have purpose. Nelson also has long served that public hospital as volunteer, director and fundraiser.
"He said he was proud of me," Nelson said. "It didn't take the sting [of Nancy's death] away. But I've got my kids and grandchildren. And it's about helping others."