John M. Nelson, former chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees and an astute leader who helmed some of the area's most important corporations through tumultuous times, died Jan. 21, 2013, in Winter Park, Fla. He was 81.
"John Nelson had left Worcester by the time I arrived as president of WPI in 2004," said WPI President Dennis Berkey. "But his legend was immediately made known to me, as integral to both Worcester's economic and civic development and WPI's continuing growth and prosperity. He reached out to me on several occasions with important information, guidance, and encouragement, all of which was very helpful to me in the early period of my work at WPI. I enjoyed my interactions with him and regard him as one of the important leaders in our history."
Nelson accepted an invitation to join the WPI board in 1986 just after being named president and CEO of Norton Company, a manufacturer of abrasives founded in 1885 by a group of entrepreneurs that included George Alden, WPI's first mechanical engineering professor, and Milton P. Higgins, first superintendent of the Washburn Shops. "I was aware that there were individuals from WPI who were closely associated with Norton, going back to the founding of both organizations," he recalled in a 1999 interview. "So I felt it was important that I have an association with the university to continue that tradition.
"I came to appreciate how WPI's project-based education prepares students to assume positions of leadership. I also saw how positively WPI graduates are viewed by employers—including some very important companies. I believe in the institution. I believe in the product it's turning out. I believe in the process that it's using to turn out that product. And I find it very exciting to be part of that."
He began a five-year term as board chairman in 1995. During that period, he chaired the search committee that recruited WPI's 14th president, Edward A. Parrish, was a key volunteer for the $150 million "Campaign for WPI" (to which he contributed his own leadership gift of $1 million), and was instrumental in working with the city to close a portion of West Street, which united the Institute's east and west campuses. Upon completing his term as chairman, the Alumni Association presented Nelson with the WPI Award for Distinguished Service.
Nelson was born in New York City and grew up in Glen Rock, N.J. After receiving a degree in mathematics from Wesleyan University, he joined the U.S. Navy’s officer training program in Newport, R.I., and attained the rank of lieutenant (j.g.) in the Naval Reserve. He then earned an MBA at the Harvard Business School and joined Norton Company in Worcester as a sales trainee. He ascended through the ranks, becoming president of abrasives operations for the Western Hemisphere and president and CEO of Norton Christensen, a company in Salt Lake City, Utah, that Norton had acquired.
One year after he returned to Worcester as president and CEO, he was named Norton's chairman. In 1990, Norton became the target of a hostile takeover attempt by the British conglomerate BTR. Nelson's attention quickly shifted from managing the daily business of a multinational company to ensuring that company's future. In the end, he fended off BTR by bringing in a corporate "white knight," France’s Saint-Gobain, which agreed to keep Norton's operations in Worcester, to maintain its focus on research and development, and to continue its charitable contributions to the community.
After the merger was complete, Nelson was fired. Not long after, some directors of the forge maker Wyman-Gordon, another Worcester firm with WPI ties (Winfield Wyman and Lyman Gordon both were graduates), asked him to take over as CEO to help the company find its way out of debt and manage a significant loss of business due to the decline of the aerospace industry. Knowing that the company's fortunes were closely tied to the success of some of the city's most important philanthropic foundations, Nelson accepted and over the next six years he helped the company engineer a turnaround that saved it from bankruptcy.
In 1995, while still at Wyman-Gordon, be became chairman of the board of Framingham-based TJX Companies, Inc., parent company to retail chains TJ Maxx and Marshalls. During his chairmanships, both TJX and Wyman-Gordon were named in the Boston Globe "Globe 100" as number-one ranked companies in Massachusetts. In 2001, Nelson cofounded and served as chairman of Commonwealth National Bank in Worcester.
After retiring from TJX in 1999, he remained active with local civic, healthcare, and cultural organizations, including the Worcester Art Museum, the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, the United Way, the University of Massachusetts Medical Center Foundation, and the Worcester Municipal Research Bureau. He received the Alexis de Tocqueville Award from United Way of Central Massachusetts in 1995, and in 1998 the Worcester Telegram & Gazette Visions 2000 program named him Citizen of the Year.
Nelson leaves his wife of over 20 years, Linda C. Nelson, a daughter, a son, two step-daughters, and six grandchildren. A funeral service will be held at First Unitarian Church, 90 Main Street, Worcester, at 11 a.m. on Feb. 9. Memorial contributions may be made to WPI, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609; Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury Street, Worcester, MA 01609; or to First Unitarian Church, 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608.