When people die, it is customary to send flowers. However, knowing Leonard C. Nelson for 46 years, I felt a different respectful tribute would be both appropriate and what he would have appreciated.
Dr. Leonard Nelson was the visionary president of West Virginia Tech, in Montgomery, when I arrived in 1971.
On one hand, he was a traditional engineer who exemplified academic rigor and spearheaded the establishment of the highly regarded Leonard C. Nelson School of Engineering and Sciences.
On the other hand, he was a progressive leader who embraced economic change and social justice in the Southern West Virginia coalfields.
While much can and has been said about his role in shaping the highly regarded reputation of West Virginia Institute of Technology, as it was named during his tenure, little has been said about the rest of his story.
My arrival began with an unusual request. As he squinted at my resume in his elegant half-moon Old Main office, he ordered me to go across the tracks to G.C. Murphy and purchase him a pair of new reading glasses. Sharp questions followed, but completion of that initiation began my journey into the other life of Leonard Nelson, which was fighting the “War on Poverty” with a few others through the Tech Foundation.
One of the “others” was Dr. Jack Robertson, whose daughter, Jane, encouraged me to apply as we worked together on various causes at West Virginia University. Another was Miles Stanley, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, who Nelson put on the Tech Board and who had met me during my internship with the WVU Institute for Labor Studies.
At Tech, we were surrounded by leaders like Paul and Rose Jean “R.J.” Kaufman, Huey Perry, Milt Ogle, Arnold Miller, Helen M. Powell, Cecil Roberts and others who were motivated by War on Poverty programs formed by President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and President Lyndon Johnson’s The Great Society.
Roberts, Powell and Miller, who related to the black-lung movement and the United Mine Workers union, received honorary doctorates from Tech and others made major contributions in moving West Virginia forward.
As a social engineer, Nelson sought to rebuild a vibrant and comprehensive institution of higher education. He and the West Virginia Board of Regents hired a consulting firm (Wood & Tower) to plan the new campus and obtain property.
Gas wells were drilled on Tech’s mountain, for extra revenue. He commissioned an array of new buildings, two designed in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright by Henry Elden, the Charleston “Top-O-Rock” architect. He also allowed Tech and empowered the Tech Foundation to begin many anti-poverty programs, including a housing factory that built 126 houses for low-income families, 26 of them for victims of the Buffalo Creek disaster, in Logan County.
Tech funneled funds to begin the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund that later merged with West Virginia Legal Services, trained black-lung advocates, including Powell, the late chairwoman of the Southern Appalachian Labor School, and began numerous social enterprises in the coalfields.
Within a year of my arrival, Nelson totally reorganized Tech and promoted Robertson, his trusted colleague, to lead the new School of Human Studies.
Together, we then began a Division of Social Sciences, with new academic programs, all with required semester-long full-credit practicum internships in labor studies, public service, health services administration and community economic development.
We also began the grant-funded Center for Labor Education, which became the Southern Appalachian Labor School.
These initiatives resulted in Tech’s first National Science Foundation grant, ironically, in the “social sciences,” which provided graduate course work in labor studies for high school teachers to maintain their professional certifications.
The center also received one of the nation’s first Occupational Safety and Health grants to train chemical workers, and the division received several pilot University Year in ACTION grants, to begin the state’s only college VISTA program, led by Jan Young, who was a former Appalachian Volunteer.
That program attracted Marcus Wilkes, current SALS board chairman, to Tech, as well as many others who successfully combined community service and course work into academic degrees.
Leonard built Tech by combining exceptional faculty, a broad vision and aggressive determination. He demanded academic excellence, embraced social justice and created academic pillars for institutional sustainability, including the establishment of one of the first community and technical colleges in the state, as a seamless integral component to encourage increased higher education enrollment in applied health, business and technical areas.
For his last commencement, he challenged me to bring in a national figure as speaker. Due to our connection with the National Rainbow Coalition, we decided to invite the Rev. Jesse Jackson. We flew him from a tour of former concentration camps in Germany to Charleston, where he and I then flew in a helicopter to Montgomery.
We landed on a make-shift pad where faculty apartments were once located next to the Vining Library. The Rev. Jackson then quickly walked to the head of the waiting procession and joined Dr. Nelson for the walk up to Martin Field. It was a sunny and brisk day surrounded by the beautiful mountains. The Rev. Jackson’s inspiring graduation address challenged everyone to focus on the quest for humane priorities.
It was a fitting tribute for a great leader and a moment to remember. Without question, Leonard C. Nelson, the farm boy from Iowa, created the opportunity for countless West Virginians to Rise Up, Have Hope, Be Somebody, and Make A Difference. That’s a real accomplishment for any true social engineer.
John David is director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School and a Gazette contributing columnist.