“It was one of those days, actually it had been a month of those days, where nothing was going right,” said Sandy Wright. “I promised my daughter I would take her to the library book sale, so I dragged myself there. A woman we didn’t know took special interest in us. She told my daughter what a smart choice of books she selected, and complimented me on my parenting. This woman had us laughing out loud and I left feeling so good about myself that the rest of the day was great. This person that brightened our day was Joan Nelson.”
Nelson, whose first name is pronounced “Jo Ann,” perks up people’s days in her various volunteer activities, be it Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, CERT, Clinton Water District, Ferry Advisory Committee, Sub Area Planning, Sheriff’s precinct volunteer, Sno-Isle Libraries, or any of her many other community involvements.
She could brighten anyone’s day, said Sara Benum, neighbor and fellow volunteer. “Joan is always looking out for other people and available if you need her. She saves all her change in a jar, and when the jar gets full she donates it to local charities and starts filling it up again. Joan has organized Clinton Library book sales complete with her cookies. She is my role model in so many ways, she’s absolutely honest and trustworthy,” Benum said, “except when she tells you she is 5’7 as she is actually 4’11.
Patty Norman, neighbor, said, “Joan is the mayor of all, she’s volunteered for a bazillion years. Her daily walks are like a yellow streak of lightning; as she walks in her yellow jacket, she goes faster than my car. She is so caring, and her sense of humor and wit never quit.”
Nelson opens the door to her home and greets the visitor with a big smile and a large lapel pin that says Town Grouch. She has the fireplace lit and a platter of healthy snacks prepared. When asked about the “Town Grouch” pin she answers, “Oh, that was my name when I worked for Dr. Purdy in Langley, because I complained about this and complained about that,” she laughed. “For instance, why doesn’t everyone learn English in this country? I think when we call and get a recording it should say: press 1 for English, press 2 to learn English.”
She continued, “And how come I don’t have a neck?” She stands up, turns to the side and shows she hasn’t a noticeable neck, and says “but I am 5-foot-7, you know.
“I try to look at the funny side of life, so I don’t cry a lot,” she said, showing a magnet on her refrigerator that reads, ‘Poop happens, just pick it up and move on.’ “We all have much in life we can cry about.”
She pours coffee into a cup but spills it, as her hands shake because of an “Essential Tremor” she’s lived with since she was a teenager. When asked if this has been a hardship for her, she answered, “Not really, I have learned to compensate for it, and others have had to compensate for it too,” she said, smiling. “It can be embarrassing, but then everyone has hardships to overcome.”
Growing up was not easy as her family was very poor. Her mother had to work to support the family, as her dad was in the hospital often.
Inquiring about a family photo on the wall of her and her husband and three children, she begins to tear up. “You know losing my husband 10 years ago was very hard, but losing my son almost three years ago was the worst.” Her husband Don was a South Whidbey principal and teacher. “Our son Don was also a teacher at South Whidbey, and later at Harbour Pointe,” she said. “Don taught until 10 days before he left us due to cancer. It was there that a special school assembly made a film for him with the students singing ‘We love you Mr. Nelson’.”
“At the local Celebration of Life for Don, held at our high school auditorium, leis were distributed to all who attended. Many were wearing Hawaiian shirts in honor of Don, his favorite mode of clothing.”
She gets a Kleenex to wipe her tears and re-composes. “We were fortunate to have him for 59 years, I have to look at it that way.”
Nelson said faith and humor comfort her every day. “Each night I ask that God help me be a better person and to help others.”
Regarding humor she said, “If you really want to laugh go and see the local group of guys called ‘Rural Characters.’ They are a panic! One of their routines is about ferry workers.” She gets up and acts out the entire storied song. “We have to have fun, it’s the only way to get through life,” she remarked as she showed a favorite poem: “This is so true,” she said, reciting the lines: “I know you have problems as great as my own, I’m forced to admit it is true. But consider the fact mine happens to me and yours only happens to you.”
Does she have regrets? “Oh yes, I am a work in progress, I need a lot of improvements. Here’s an example that has bothered me for over 70 years. I opened the door for a woman at a shopping center, and when she thanked me, I said ‘Oh that’s OK, I would have done it for a dog.’ I thought at the time I was being funny, but afterwards I realized that was extremely rude. Since then I have tried to be more thoughtful.
“More importantly I wish I had been a more patient parent with our children, less frugal and more understanding.”
Daughter Robin Hernandez wrote, “I always say I have the best mother in the world, and I truly mean it, everyone that meets her loves her. She was the quintessential stay-at-home mom, making everything from our food, clothes, to building cabinets. She and my dad taught us we can do anything if we put our minds to it. Their volunteering taught us to care about others and our community.”
Nelson said of her husband, “He was the perfect husband, always proud of me for no reason. You know in the last month I have dreamed of him often, do you suppose this means I am getting ready to see him again? I wonder what heaven is like; you know at my age one does think of these things. Will I know my husband and my son when I get there? I hope so. I ask God these questions, but he hasn’t answered me yet.”
Debby Colfer, Clinton Library branch manager, said, “Joan has served on the Friends of the Clinton Library board in various positions over many years. She shows up at programs in case I need help. Joan has presented children’s programs about making envelopes from colorful papers. She was patient with the kids, and made them feel so successful. Joan invited me to stay at her home when we had a big surprise snowstorm several years ago, because she was worried about me driving to Greenbank. She was a marvelous hostess, giving up her bedroom. I would have happily slept on the couch, but she insisted that I sleep in her bedroom in a comfortable bed. I feel like this exemplifies who Joan is.
“When I look up and see Joan coming into the library it brightens my day. She adds joy to the lives of others through her sunny personality.”
Born: Feb. 23, 1928, in Kent, Wash.
Parents: Earl and Louolie Griffin, both deceased.
Siblings: One sister Mary, deceased.
Spouse: Don Nelson, deceased 2003, married on Dec. 23, 1948.
Children: Son Don Nelson, deceased at age 59 (would have been 63), Marilee age 61, Robin age 59.
Grandchildren: Five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren with another on the way; three step-grandchildren and two step-greats.
Years on Whidbey: 59.
Hobbies: Reading, traveling, volunteering, complaining.
If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?
“Write good children’s books which would inspire them to explore, be inquisitive and live a good, happy life. I have started three, one about a latchkey boy.”
What would you like to change in yourself?
“Good grief! Name anything and it needs improving, more patience, better listener, stop interrupting, the list goes on.”
Who would you like to apologize to?
“Likely, almost everyone I talk to. Why? I jump in and interrupt.”
What qualities do you admire in a person?
“Sense of humor, honesty, treating everyone as equals, sharing love of life and knowledge, and shares your opinions but let others have theirs too.”
What do you wish you never found out?
“That I am only 4 feet, 11 inches and not a redhead.”
What do you do when you feel down?
“Turn my mind to something else, or hum.”
If you could be an inanimate object what would it be?
“A lawn swing, kids would jump on me, laughing and playing.”
What is something you wish you were good at?
“Speaking a foreign language.”
What questions would you like to ask others?
“If you could do something over again, what would it be? And what brought you to Whidbey?”
Who are people you admire?
“Roy Simmons, one of the nicest kindest guys, Ann Gordon, one of the pluckiest woman ever! Helen Price Johnson and Norma Smith, both elected officials who listen closely to their constituents, consider all sides of an issue, of how the majority feel. Mike Helland, hardworking kind of person, like a son to me, Rob Rorex, another kind, hardworking human and like a son to me.
“All teachers trying to cope with different personalities, all firefighters, all EMS, all Sheriff’s deputies, all police for keeping us safe at all hours.”