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Fargo state senator to get national award for supporting the arts

Carolyn Nelson

FARGO — Carolyn Nelson decided years ago to teach math instead of music for the most practical of reasons. She calculated that there would always be a steady demand for math instructors, but couldn't be so certain about music.

Despite that career choice, Nelson always immersed herself in music and the arts. She served for years as her church's organist and later as director of its handbell choir. As a state legislator in Fargo, she co-founded the bipartisan Senate Chorus and advocated to expand the state archives.

Teaching math was Nelson's vocation, but the arts were her lifelong passion, an outlook she maintained as a parent, former state president of the Parent Teacher Association, Fargo School Board member and while serving in the North Dakota House and Senate for 32 years.

"It wasn't just an afterthought," she said of the important role for the arts. "Part of a person's being is the culture they grew up in."

Nelson's years of advocacy for the arts are being recognized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a nonprofit group called Women in Government, which have named her the first-ever recipient of the "Outstanding Woman State Legislator Supporting the Arts" award.

The honor, announced Thursday, Oct. 19, will be presented Nov. 8 at the Kennedy Center.

"I'm kind of excited," Nelson said, with artful understatement.

"Senator Nelson exemplifies the leadership that women bring to the table," Nancy Todd, a Colorado senator and chairwoman of Women in Government's board, said in a statement. "At home, in the community, in the legislature, nationally and around the world, Senator Nelson has enhanced thousands if not millions of lives through the arts."

As a lawmaker, Nelson, D-Fargo, has fought for expanded arts funding and has resisted arts funding cuts, according to her nomination for the award.

"In all things, Carolyn has supported and collaborated with cultural and education partners locally, statewide and nationally to share and spread her devotion and dedication to the arts," said the nominating letter by Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo, and Rep. Pam Anderson, D-Fargo.

By expanding the state archive, space was created for nonprofit and civic groups, many no longer active, to store records that otherwise would be lost.

Nelson, a former national president of the Federation of Music Clubs, laments that many once-active women's groups from the early 1900s no longer exist. "Many of those records were lost," she said. "They needed a place to store their history."

Her oldest son signed up for her church's handbell choir, followed a year later by her younger son. Soon, Nelson got involved, becoming the church's handbell choir director in the 1970s, a position she kept until the late 1990s.

"It was more of an avocation than a vocation," she said. She served an international role as the Governor's Musical Ambassador to Norway in 1976 and now serves as a board member of the International Music Camp, which brings together young performance artists at the International Peace Gardens.

"The commitment and dedication of Senator Nelson in advocating for the arts at every level is inspiring and the Kennedy Center congratulates her on receiving this inaugural award," Mario Rossero, senior vice president of education at the Kennedy Center, said in a statement.

A reception for Nelson was held Thursday evening at the Revland Gallery in downtown Fargo.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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