Clara Nelson believes she has much to be thankful for. She goes out of her way to help others in meaningful ways, big or small. As a result, she may be the busiest 81-year-old you’ll ever meet.
Since many of her friends can no longer drive, Nelson volunteers to drive them to their doctor or eye appointments. She has driven friends to physical therapy, chemotherapy and dentist appointments, and once a month about three or four friends pile into her minivan and she drives them all to Wal-Mart in Baxter to go shopping and eat lunch. Recently she made three trips to Brainerd from her home at Sibley Terrace in Pequot Lakes, driving friends to their various medical appointments. She often gives friends rides to church, too.
“It’s what I like to do,” Nelson said with a smile. “If I can do something worthwhile, I do it. It’s fun and it isn’t stressful. It gives me something special to do.”
Dee Rager, her Sibley Terrace neighbor and friend, had a three-hour eye appointment last week because she has macular degeneration. Nelson took her to her appointment, and brought other friends along so they could run their errands and eat lunch together.
“She is a wonderful person,” Rager said of Nelson. “I couldn’t get along without her. And she makes the best coffee in the world.”
When she volunteered years ago through Interfaith Caregivers, Nelson met June Strehlow, who became a close friend. They’re like sisters, she explained. So when Strehlow’s husband died and she moved into a Crosby nursing home, Nelson continued to visit, often playing piano and singing for the nursing home residents while she is there. She will pick her up and bring her to her Pequot Lakes dentist. During her monthly Wal-Mart trips with her friends, Nelson meets the nursing home van at the store and Strehlow joins the group of women as they shop, eat lunch and laugh together.
Nelson’s aunt, Anna Carlson, died Oct. 20 at Whispering Pines Nursing Home in Pine River. She would have been 96 last month. For years, Nelson visited her aunt about once a week and would have lunch with her. A group of women usually joined them and Nelson would lead the chorus as they sang and yodeled while Nelson played piano.
Nelson is a self-taught pianist and can’t read music, but that hasn’t stopped her from sharing her musical gifts with others. She also plays guitar.
Nelson is active at her church, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where she serves as president of Dorcas Circle, a group started by her mother around 1957. She helps serve meals at the church on Wednesday nights and each Monday morning joins the church quilting group in making and donating quilts for those who need them. On Halloween, Nelson and her friend, LaVonne Clink, sat in her minivan and handed out candy to children at Our Savior’s Trunk or Treat event.
Nelson was born in Webb, Iowa, but her family moved to Pequot Lakes a year later. Her parents, Victor and Elin Johnson, farmed five miles southeast of Pequot Lakes, and their home was known for its ski hill. They would host skiing parties for their friends and Sunday school students on weekends. Her dad was Swedish, so he wanted his five children to learn how to ski, she said.
Nelson and her four siblings attended Sunny Knolls School, a country school. Their dad, who didn’t own a car, would either take them the more than two miles to school in his horse-drawn sleigh or they would cross-country ski to school. She said her mother often didn’t know when the group of siblings would return home after school since they loved to go agate hunting along the way. The country school, which housed first- through eighth-grade students, closed after Nelson started ninth grade at Pequot Lakes High School.
She married her husband, Don Nelson, at 18 and they operated a dairy farm east of Pequot Lakes. In 1964 they moved northeast of Pequot Lakes and spent many years raising and training Tennessee walking horses. They also operated group trail rides. The Nelsons helped start the Moonlight Riders Saddle Club, a young horse riding club in 1967, and they would put on horse shows at their farm.
Nelson’s mother, along with Eugene Kennedy, started the Pelican Lakes 4-H Club and the Nelsons were active in the club for many years. Don ran the horse project while Clara ran the bread-making project.
Since the 1940s and for many years, Don Nelson performed the plowing for several area townships and cities, including Pelican and Ideal, and Jenkins, but he spent nearly 30 years working for Sibley Township and Pequot Lakes. Don Nelson also ran a sawmill and sold pulpwood. In those days before mobile phones, Clara Nelson would carry a Swede saw in her car at all times just in case they received a phone call from the township about a downed tree on a roadway. If it was something she could handle, she would simply do the work herself.
Later, Nelson worked as a nursing aide at Whispering Pines Good Samaritan Village in Pine River, and also worked in home health care. She and Margaret Ellis also cleaned houses together and still continue to clean Jenkins City Hall once a month.
Her life has had its share of triumphs and heartache. When her youngest, Beth, was 5, Nelson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Five years later, the cancer returned. She prayed that she would live long enough to see Beth through high school; Beth is now 43.
In 1970, Nelson’s 14-year-old daughter, Connie, suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident. The accident left Connie with a traumatic brain injury. The teenager had to relearn how to walk and talk. Connie spent one month at the University of Minnesota Hospital and another month at the Crosby hospital before she was able to return home. Sadly, Connie died of brain cancer in 1992. She was 36 and left behind a husband and four young children. The Nelsons and other family members helped care for their grandchildren during this difficult time.
Nelson said her faith in God has helped carry her through the rocky times. She prays each morning, and some days she said she simply tells Him, “It’s your day, God. Take over my life. Guide me and direct me.”
Her husband died at home on Feb. 10, 2012. Together they have five children; 12 grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren with an 11th great-grandchild on the way.
In May, Nelson moved to Sibley Terrace. She recently joined the Sibley Terrace Board. She enjoys riding her bicycle around town but has had difficulty finding anyone her age willing to go on a bike ride with her.
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” Nelson said with a smile.