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'Make other people's lives better': United Way an integral part of John Nelson's life

John Nelson, the former principal of Fargo's Ben Franklin Middle School, teaches a math class at Fargo North High School this semester. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — If you do the math, John Nelson has been volunteering for the United Way of Cass-Clay in one capacity or another for 30 years.

Nelson, who retired last summer as Ben Franklin Middle School’s principal, says the extra effort has added a lot of satisfaction to his life.

“I just think that we’re here on Earth to make life better for others, not for ourselves. If we serve others, we reap the benefits. That’s what volunteering is about for me,” Nelson said Tuesday, Dec. 18.

“You get pumped up from it. It’s just a warm, positive feeling that makes your day better. I wish more people would be more concerned about others than themselves,” he said. “They would grow more.”


John Nelson passes out papers during his math class at Fargo North High School. David Samson / The Forum

Nelson has long shared his time and talents with the community. As a student at North Dakota State University, Nelson would volunteer to coach at Ben Franklin, North High or for the Fargo Wrestling Club.

It was in 1988, when Nelson was a young math teacher at Ben Franklin, that an administrator asked him to be the United Way chairman for the school.

“I had a student the next year that was actually living in the (YWCA) shelter,” Nelson said. “I got an opportunity to talk with her about the difficulties in life that she was having. She spoke to many other teachers, too. Our United Way campaign just took off because they could put a face to it. They (teachers and staff) had that connection.”

In 1992, he was asked to run the United Way campaign for Fargo Public Schools. Two years later, Nelson, who had then become an assistant principal at Ben Franklin, was named to the United Way campaign cabinet to represent education.

“I’ve been there ever since,” Nelson said.

Beyond the fundraising, Nelson enjoys the United Way's annual events such as Day of Giving, helping the area’s elderly or disabled with chores or the School Supply Drive, which last year equipped nearly 6,100 children with backpacks and school supplies.

Most of the backpacks and supplies are distributed in August, but some families still miss those events.


Nelson is credited with making sure each Fargo school has extra backpacks full of supplies on hand for children who show up for classes without those needed items.

Nelson said he was proud to be on the United Way cabinet when the agreement was struck with the Dollywood Foundation to provide Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library books to area children from birth to age 5. The program is a big boost for early literacy and preparing children for school, he said.

He is also a fan of the Great Plains Food Bank’s backpack food program, which receives United Way funding.

“To see a kid on a Friday afternoon when they’re leaving for home and they’re leaving with a backpack of food, and knowing that might be the only food they will have that weekend,” is a powerful reminder of the needs of others, he said.

John Nelson teaches a math class at Fargo North High School. David Samson / The Forum

United Way spokeswoman Kristina Hein-Landin said Nelson has been invaluable in communicating to educators the importance of United Way programs for the children they see daily.

Nelson helped United Way raise more than $64,000 in Fargo Public Schools last year, Hein-Landin said.


“He’s really helped us make that connection,” Hein-Landin said. “Only he can do that.”

On a personal level, Hein-Landin is impressed by Nelson’s energy.

“That energy is contagious. He is a can-do person, not a we-tried-that-before” person, she said.

His colleagues say he is a difference-maker.

“What we’ve noticed is that he’s had a regional impact on our community,” with his work with the United Way, North High Principal Andy Dahlen said.

“He’s really made a difference in the lives of our community members, youth especially. (We’re) pretty proud of him,” Dahlen said.

Nelson is now teaching precalculus and Algebra II at North as a long-term substitute, Dahlen said.

“The kids have adored him,” Dahlen said.


Nelson said volunteering makes a lasting impact on the world.

“If you concentrate on your own accomplishments and your own feelings, when you die, you’re gone. But if you concentrate on helping others, you will live forever,” Nelson said.

“If you want to have an impact … if you want to change things, you need to do that through helping others and helping make other people’s lives better,” he said.

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