George Nelson's Midas touch
Next to the surnames of Madison's generous benefactors such as the Goodmans or Frautschis, is one family name that has quietly had a significant impact on Madison's structural and cultural skyline since the early 1900s. From the Capitol to Monona Terrace, the Overture Center to the American Family Children's Hospital, three generations of Nelsons have woven a golden thread running through the city's social fabric.
"Timing is everything," said a humble George Nelson, 72, admitting he's flown under the radar. Nelson is the executive vice president of the Evening Telegram Company (holding company of WISC-TV Channel 3), as well as Morgan Murphy Media.
His is the story of a family immigrating from Denmark to, fittingly, Dane County; of a family tree rooted in the construction industry, with Nelson's grandfather, also named George, starting Janesville Sand & Gravel in 1907 and pouring all the concrete for the current state capitol building. Nelson's father, Russell, a part owner of WISC-TV, was also a well-known Madison contractor and built WISC-TV's first studio on Hammersley Drive. But any hopes that Russ' son George would carry on the Nelson construction legacy were dashed after he "kind of flunked out" of UW's engineering school. "Construction is still in the family genes, just not in mine," George laughed, adding that his son Mark – the fourth generation Nelson – has since assumed those talents.
Instead of engineering, George Nelson graduated in 1960 with a BBA from UW, then launched a successful banking career – first at the National Bank of Detroit, then First Wisconsin National Bank – before switching to the investment side at Robert W. Baird.
A longtime member of the WISC/Morgan Murphy board, Nelson joined the organization full-time in 1982. Since then, his Midas-touch ability to rally the business community around projects has become almost legendary.
He's especially proud of his 11-year quest to bring Monona Terrace to town: "It was the most frustrating but rewarding thing I've been involved in," he admitted. "I learned things I never expected, and had to build a coalition of people from all walks of life and build something the community, for 60 years, wasn't able to do."
With stories aplenty, Nelson's recollections, perhaps, resonate best:
On Monona Terrace: "[Then-mayor] Soglin asked me to head up the Frank Lloyd Wright Center Commission, and we put the Monona Terrace project together. [Then-Gov.] Tommy Thompson helped, as did the city, Dane County, and the private sector pumped in $8 million, almost unheard of back then." With a price tag of $67 million, it was the city's most expensive public building project ever. "My job was to get out of the way and let the right people do their thing. Everyone contributed. It wasn't my idea, it was our idea."
Overture Center for the Arts: "After Monona Terrace, Jerry Frautschi approached me, wanting to build a performing arts/cultural center, which became Overture. I knew three months before anyone else that he was
going to put up the first $50 million. Then George Austin came over. I just couldn't believe it!"
MATC Truax campus: "Soglin wanted to keep it downtown. I was put in charge of the investment committee, and we doubled their money in 10 years, enabling them to build out at Truax."
American Family Children's Hospital: "It started as an offshoot of the Ronald McDonald House [another Nelson success]. I'd seen kids at UW Hospital sharing the same clinic as chained prisoners. There were no facilities for families of sick kids. I have 15 grandkids, and that had to change. Others got involved and the stars just aligned. We moved pediatrics up the ladder in terms of priority. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart."
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