I don’t know if Norman Rockwell ever visited Carlsbad. But if he did, it would be my hope he would have considered Greg Nelson for one of his all-American portraits.
Rockwell personified the everyday best that could be found in middle American values. Qualities like working hard, honesty, fairness and sharing what you may have with those less fortunate.
More than 320 of Rockwell’s works ended up as magazine covers including illustrations for Life and the famous series for The Saturday Evening Post. He also produced the artwork for the annual Boy Scouts of America Calendar from 1925-1976. He was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 for his support and contribution to America.
It’s normally considered impolite to discuss money and philanthropy in public. I suppose that concept harkens back to Biblical days and the teaching that we should do good works for the sole purpose of doing good works, not for our own public glory. I agree.
In this instance, even Peter and Paul would be hard pressed to disagree that when we can illustrate the good work of one man in order to inspire and teach others to do the same, then shining a light on the act of philanthropy can be a valuable lesson for all of society. So let me turn on the lamp and shine it towards Greg Nelson.
Life for the Nelson family started in Arizona—a pleasant enough place except for the summer months when most of the state can be found on our beaches with their toes in the surf. Who would begrudge them that?
However, Greg, his brother and mom did not have the luxuries that many tourists have today. A difficult home life eventually resulted in the dad leaving the family. At age 10, Greg, his brother and mom would leave Arizona for good. They ended up in a little apartment on Pine Street, in downtown Carlsbad. They would move often in Carlsbad, “Wherever the rent was cheap”, is how Greg described it.
Although they may have changed addresses frequently in the early years, there was one address that Greg and his mom found that would become a home away from home—3115 Roosevelt Street. Since 1952 that has been the home of the Carlsbad Boys and Girls Club.
Greg started shooting hoops at the club after school like many other youngsters did then, and still do today. It wasn’t long before two important, life-changing events took hold at the club that would shape his career and values.
The Boys and Girls Club saw growth and maturity in Greg and rewarded him by giving him a mop, a bucket and a garden hose. Well, in all seriousness, Greg asked for them. At age 13, he had his first job. It was at the club as an after-school gardener and all around helper.
In addition to being a hard worker, Greg Nelson had basketball fever…bad. It was in his blood. The kid could play, as they say. When it was all said and done, Greg would help lead the Carlsbad High School basketball team to the CIF Championship in 1966.
Greg continued to progress as a student-athlete in high school. His leadership, work ethic and maturity would earn him “Youth of the Year” honors from the club at age 16.
During high school and college, Greg continued to work at the club. His bucket and mop gave way to jobs such as “Aquatics Director”, “Executive Director” and, eventually, “President”. When it was all over, he would give the club forty years of service when he retired in 1980.
About the same time he retired, Greg and two friends started to work in earnest on ideas they had been tinkering with in the area of rehabilitation of athletic injuries. Like many entrepreneurs, the garage became the workshop and eventually the start of a new enterprise.
It seems a mutual friend who had been playing football in the NFL had been wrapping his knee with an old inner tube in an attempt to stabilize an injury. Greg and the partners began to work with the concept and refine it using old wetsuits and neoprene. Before long, they had a working part that made sense medically and could be marketed. And so, Don Joy Orthopedics was born.
The company is a home grown success story. Greg and the partners would eventually build the business into a global presence with hundreds of therapeutic and rehabilitation products. This success caught the eye of a friendly competitor—Smith and Nephew of Great Britain.
A match was made and in 1987 the British firm bought Don Joy and Greg Nelson, his partners and many employees were blessed financially. Now what? Here’s where the story gets good.
Greg, his wife and their family now had the opportunity to really focus on their personal interests and match them with substantial philanthropic resources. The list of beneficiaries quickly grew.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes was richly rewarded. So too, was Casa de Amparo, the North County-based home for abused children. The organization would receive substantial assistance including the creation of “Grandma Barbi’s Toddler Room”, named in honor of Greg’s wife.
The University of San Diego would name Greg and Barbi to their Executive Cabinet in honor of their support for the institution. A Christian church in South Carlsbad would receive five acres of land plus support for construction of their new home.
The Nelson’s would establish a scholarship program that provides more than fourteen need-based young students with up to 100% support during their four year college education.
A small restaurant in The Village, formerly known as Spirito’s, would attract their attention as well. The business was in danger of closing and many jobs would be lost. That’s a tough break for single parents. The Nelson’s recapitalized the restaurant, renaming it Gregorio’s and adding a life lesson in the process. Greg helped the employees understand and create a new marketing plan so they could keep their jobs and live a dream.
These good works were done quietly. But they caught the eye of Mayor Bud Lewis. He would bestow Carlsbad’s Citizen of the Year honors on Greg in 1991.
A wonderful accolade to be sure.
Greg’s respect and love for the Boys and Girls Club, and his commitment to our community, would manifest itself again in 2004. About that time, the club made the decision to open a new branch in La Costa. It would serve the many youth in the fast growing portions of the city east of I-5.
The Nelson’s would answer the call to build a new club location by opening their checkbook and writing a one million dollar donation to his former home away from home.
And so, the community continues to benefit from a man and his family who have lived in our midst for decades. Greg Nelson invests in young boys and girls, teenagers off to college, young families and single parents all with an eye towards developing sound values, teaching lifelong business skills and creating self-esteem. He does it without a quest for recognition.
Norman Rockwell painted many scenes of traditional life in middle America. His work became valued collector’s items. How fortunate for Carlsbad that we have a living portrait of traditional values within our midst.