Don Nelson, A Life Well Lived.
Northfield Shares, Our Community Foundation and St. Olaf College are two local organizations to have known and benefited from this amazing man.
Special thank you to Barb Barzen, Don’s niece, for sharing her memories about Don for this article.
Don Nelson, who passed away January 13, 2023 at the age of 97 was an amazing, well learned, incredibly generous and foresighted gentleman.
You didn’t need to spend much time with Don before you knew what was important to him – his extended family, his farms, conservation, the organizations and institutions that shaped him, and his philanthropy.
Growing up, Don’s family took annual trips from their home in Minneapolis to Eau Claire to see his dad’s extended family, and several times each year they drove to Nerstrand to visit his mother’s relatives at the Engeseth and Rinde farms. Those trips to Eau Claire and Nerstrand ended up charting the course for the rest of his life. A relative in Eau Claire whom he greatly admired was a dentist who nudged Don toward his career as an orthodontist, and time at the Nerstrand farm sparked his interest in agriculture and conservation.
After retiring from a 30-year career as an orthodontist, Don’s three farms became his life. He spent long hours mowing the lawns, planting and trimming thousands of trees, and tending to other chores. Most days, he would take a midday break to sit on the lawn, eat several peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and then he’d lay down on his back, and watch the sky. Barzen shared, “This was one of his favorite things to do. We never knew about this until much later, though, when he always insisted that any room he moved to HAD to have a good view out the window. It wasn’t until he told us about his daily routine at the farms that we understood why this was so important to him. He HAD to be able to see the sky.”
Through all of his years owning three farms, this city-raised dentist did all he could to educate himself about agriculture and conservation, which were his true loves. He was actively involved in the American Walnut Association and the Rochester Chapter of the Isaak Walton League, he subscribed to agricultural journals, and he interacted with local farmers whenever possible. “After moving to Northfield, Don faithfully drove to McDonalds every morning to join the farmers who gathered there. He told me he always sat one table away from this group — close enough to learn from and engage with them, while recognizing that he was not a full-blooded farmer,” said Barzen
When it came time to let go of his farms, Don’s philanthropic ethic and mission came to light. He reflected on the impact that exposure to farming and nature had on his life, and he wanted to provide those same experiences for others.
He was incredibly strategic and forward-looking with his philanthropy. In 2015 Don placed the Engeseth Rinde farm in a permanent conservation easement through the Minnesota Land Trust. It was then sold to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In 2016, Don donated some of the proceeds from the sale of the farms to Northfield Shares, Our Community Foundation in order to create an endowment that will support restoration, research and education activities and programs long into the future. This endowed fund, referred to as the Engeseth-Rinde Restoration Fund with Northfield Shares has already made an impact by providing over $100,000 to nonprofit organizations committed to his vision for restoration, research, and education on the Engeseth-Rinde Unit of Prairie Creek Wildlife Management Area (PCWMA).
Multiple partners, including local individuals and organizations as well as faculty and students at both local colleges are benefiting from this gift. Carleton and St. Olaf are now learning and implementing restoration, education, and research activities in and around the Koester Prairie and Engeseth-Rinde Units of the Prairie Creek Wildlife Management Area. Most importantly, from Don’s standpoint, this land is available for the public to enjoy. The work and opportunities are supported by this fund and will continue in making it open for public use, and the land will gradually return to prairie, wetland and oak savanna.
Northfield Shares is so grateful to be able to execute Don’s incredible generosity and far-reaching impact for generations!
Here’s to a life well lived and continuing his legacy!
Creating and leaving YOUR legacy, no matter the size, and providing financial support long into the future for Northfield or a cause, can be created through Northfield Shares.
“Don’s wisdom, foresight, and generosity made a very big impression on me. He saw that to leave a significant conservation legacy, you need to do much more than set aside the land–you need to provide future generations with the tools, the organization, the resources and the values through the legacy he lived. Thank you, Don. What an amazing life!– Dave Kuhnau, Engeseth-Rinde Restoration Grant Committee Chair