Remembering Dr. Nelson
April 12, 2019
“Dr. Nelson: Fiercely committed, fiercely loyal to his students, to his staff, to the Westfield community. Every decision always had the best interest of the student at the heart of it. A scholar and a jokester in the same breath. Loved to joke and prank, but was the first one to roll his sleeves up and get serious. A family man. A doting father. A friend. A fierce leader.”—Dr. Tiffany Jacobson, Supervisor of Language Arts, K-12
On April 7, WHS Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson unexpectedly passed away due to complications associated with a stem cell donation in late February. Dr. Nelson was a hero—in every sense of the word. His courage, selflessness and integrity inspired the Westfield community. He was a respected leader, beloved friend and adored father. Dr. Nelson was a hero to his country and to us.
It’s impossible to capture all that Dr. Nelson was in just a few pages. His impact is still reverberating—through the hallways where he would sing at the top of his lungs, through Kehler Stadium where he would ignite the crowd on game days and through his own home where he would make his fiancée and 5-year-old daughter smile and laugh. Dr. Nelson will be missed immensely, but his legacy will live on in the countless lives he touched along the way.
What does it mean to be a hero? In all aspects, Dr. Nelson excelled beyond the typical definition.
Dr. Nelson’s heroic actions began in the military. He enlisted in the Army Reserve when he was 19 years old as a way to cover the cost of college, but he quickly adopted service as a part of his identity.
Dr. Nelson was deployed with the 143rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command to Afghanistan in the summer of 2013, according to the Westfield Patch. In 2014, he transitioned from Master Sergeant to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Warrant Officer.
“Dr. Nelson was a true American hero,” WHS Counselor Paul Valenzano said. “Whether it was the work he did in education with youths or how he served his country and even the selflessness that led up to this tragedy—all things point to the fact that he was a real American hero. He was called. He served. He is counted.”
The Westfield community is committed to continuing Dr. Nelson’s legacy. In a press conference on Tuesday, Superintendent Margaret Dolan said, “We will set high standards for ourselves as Derrick set for himself and, as Dr. Nelson has done, we will think a little bit less about ourselves and much more of the others who are around us.”
Beloved by all who knew him, Dr. Nelson’s genuine heart and selfless nature shined through all of his actions. RIS English Teacher Carine Helwig summed up his character beautifully with these words: “A man of service, a man of sacrifice, a man who would always put the needs of others before his own. That’s Derrick Nelson.”
Among all the titles he carried, Dr. Nelson showed us what it means to be a hero in every capacity. He created a new definition for hero, and inspires us to do the same.
Manhood. Scholarship. Perseverance. Uplift. These four words embody the mission of the remarkable group of people who call Dr. Nelson a brother. His fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, played an important role throughout Dr. Nelson’s life.Omega Psi Phi honors and celebrates African Americans who are local and international leaders.
In 1996, at Delaware State University, Omega Psi Phi held a Charles Richard Drew blood drive. This blood drive was created in honor of Dr. Charles Richard Drew, an African-American scientist who discovered the method for long-term storage of blood plasma and organized America’s first large-scale blood bank. It was in that 1996 blood drive that Dr. Nelson donated his blood, spurring his decision to donate stem cells this year; 23 years later, he will be remembered for giving without hesitation.
Nelson Render, an Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, remembers Dr. Nelson’s kindness. He said, “[Dr. Nelson] was a brother, he was a leader, he would be the first person to donate his time and do things for his fraternity, even to the point where he was doing random acts of kindness.” Dr. Nelson was known to send gifts completely unannounced, simply out of the kindness of his heart.
Nelson Render continued to say, “He was just a gem of a person who everyone in the fraternity could count on, and we’re going to miss him so much because of his leadership, his love and his inspirational acts.”
The fraternity’s name was derived from the Greek phrase meaning “friendship is essential to the soul.” It is no wonder that Dr. Nelson would be a part of such a caring, giving and selfless fraternity.
Dr. Nelson’s legacy will live on in every aspect of his life, but in this aspect, he will forever be a brother.
From the words of Omega Psi Phi, “It is not an accident that many of America’s great black men are or were Omega Men.”
Dr. Nelson exemplified everything that an educator should be. His passion for education radiated through the difficult tasks he faced. He was known as a friendly and approachable face in the hallway, as well as a respected authority figure.
Dr. Nelson’s passion stemmed from his lifelong aspiration to be a teacher. He started his career in Plainfield, NJ and his desire to reach students on a greater scale led to his position as assistant principal in Orange, NJ for three years.
In 2010, Dr. Nelson was appointed assistant principal of RIS. Retired RIS Principal Stewart Carey explained why Dr. Nelson stood out among the other candidates: “his interest in students, his willingness to supervise appropriately and work with teachers, the toughness in him to make the hard decisions and be willing to stand up for what he felt was in the best interest of kids.”
While assistant principal at RIS, part of Dr. Nelson’s vision was to bridge the divide between Westfield and Plainfield. RIS Language Arts Teacher Matthew Kalafat and Dr. Nelson created a program between the two towns’ middle schools designed to diffuse existing stereotypes. “None of this would have happened without Derrick,” Kalafat said.
The initiative that Dr. Nelson took towards broadening students’ education reflects his drive to nurture the development of those he encountered—a drive that the Westfield community will cherish forever.
Later, Dr. Nelson moved to WHS to be assistant principal, and in 2017, he was unanimously voted principal of WHS.
Dr. Nelson’s passion for his career will forever impact WHS. ¨I remember how he was always taking on new challenges, sometimes working to better understand the curriculum, sometimes finding ways to improve a complex high school schedule, but always with a vision of what Westfield High School could be,’’ Dr. Dolan said.
Dr. Nelson demonstrated his exceptional leadership as a decorated military officer, respected administrator and a role model.
As a part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Westfield, NJ, Dr. Nelson participated in a panel discussion about race at WHS in 2016. As the first African-American principal of WHS, Dr. Nelson served as an inspiration to all.
“His forthright honesty and clear understanding of issues affecting the community was a breath of fresh air,” the MLK Jr. association wrote in a statement. “Throughout his time as principal, Dr. Nelson was open to new ideas that could serve students well and was a dedicated leader with enthusiasm, integrity and innovation.”
“I consider him a pioneer in the field of education and as an African-American principal in the town of Westfield,” said Dr. Randal Pinkett, the speaker at WHS’ 2019 Black History Month assembly, in an emailed statement. “His excellence as an educator inspires students, teachers and administrators of all backgrounds and his legacy as a trailblazer will open doors for generations to come.”
Dr. Nelson was respected by all. “I was so proud that he was made principal, as we all were, for a black man to rise to that position, and he could fill those shoes,” said Substitute Teacher Francis Browne. “Education, military experience—he was a man’s man. What a role model.”
Dr. Dolan referenced his invaluable impact on the WHS community: “He always had that vision; he was thoughtful, he had an idea of what we were going to do this year, next year, four years from now at Westfield High School.”
Dr. Nelson’s background as a lifelong educator and military officer enabled him to have a special relationship with his students. “[They] knew he was not to be messed with, but they didn’t fear him,” said Westfield parent Mary Hoskins-Clark. “They respected him as he respected them. He was a true leader.”
‘Big, Big Fun’
Behind his serious exterior, Dr. Nelson was truly a jokester at heart. At the end of the day, he always knew how to have fun.
It was no secret that Dr. Nelson worked very long hours at WHS, but he always made the best of it. “If you’re at WHS long after school has ended, when the hallways are clear of almost everyone except for a few custodians, you may hear a bellowed song ring throughout the building,” wrote Morgan Sturdevant in a Hi’s Eye article from February 2017. “It may seem like something out of Glee, but it’s not. It’s just our principal, Dr. Derrick Nelson, singing a tune, and he’s been doing it for years.”
WHS Media Specialist Lesley Cora recalled when he shared his love of music with the school, specifically his favorite rapper. “Last year, he went on the mic during announcements and he mentioned that he was a big rap fan,” Cora said.
“He said, ‘Today is the birthday of the greatest rapper of all time’ and then he [played] the Notorious B.I.G., and I just almost fell out of my chair because who would do that? He would do that.”
Not only did Dr. Nelson sing, but according to many testimonies, he also had some legendary dance moves. “I’m going to miss him doing his frat dance: the stomp,” said Special Education Teacher Gail Alston.
And he was not afraid to break it down in front of students. “A favorite memory of mine was caroling ‘This Christmas’ in his office the day before winter break with the Chorale,” said WHS alum Catherine Moore. “He stopped what he was doing to dance and sing along with us. It is one thing to support arts programs, and another to put yourself out personally to students and show them that you care about what they’re doing.”
WHS Science Teacher Judith McLoughlin recalled a similar memory in a previous Hi’s Eye article from February 2017. “He can dance at prom and still maintain not only the respect of the teachers, but the students,” she said. “That’s unique.”
You could always hear him and his boisterous laugh down the hall and his wisecracks in between classes. He was never afraid to have a good laugh with staff and students alike.
“In the job that he had, being the leader of such a big building, doing the great job that he did, I was honored that he could come into my office, lock the door and just laugh and blow off steam,” said Assistant Principal James DeSarno.
WHS alum Rob Brown also recalled a funny memory with Dr. Nelson: “He one time came to a cross country practice and did sprints with me, which was one of my favorite practices because he was giving me a run for my money.”
Track & Field Coach and WHS Science Teacher Chris Tafelski recalled a similar memory of Dr. Nelson running with the track team. “He would come to practice and be like ‘Alright, who am I running with?’” said Tafelski. “He’d be a half-mile in and be like, ‘These are your slow kids?’”
WHS Assistant Principal Mabel Huynh remembers his personality fondly. “He was just full of energy, bouncing from one place to another,” said Huynh. “His energy was contagious and infectious too. You’d see him and all of a sudden, you’re energized.”
While Dr. Nelson maintained discipline and order in our school, he was never afraid to let loose and have fun. His gregarious personality will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to have been touched by it.
Dr. Nelson’s impact on the Westfield community stretched far beyond the administrative side of his job. To all who knew him, he was not a principal who stayed in his office, detached from staff and students. He was a friend, a mentor and above all, a kind man with an extraordinary heart.
Alston remembers a difficult experience in her life in which Dr. Nelson was there for her. “When my daughter passed away, he was right there at the wake and I was surprised because I had just met Derrick, but right then, I knew that he cared about all of us,” she said.
Dr. Nelson’s passion for ensuring the well-being of those around him also extended to his students. “He once called me into his office simply to see how I was doing,” SGA Vice President Emma Herber said. “He asked what I wanted to do with my life and proceeded to tell me about his life and how he got to where he was.”
“He told me that in the end, fulfillment is more important than the textbook ‘success’ and if you are doing what you love you will ultimately find fulfillment,” said Herber.
Dr. Nelson found his fulfillment in life by looking out for others. RIS Counselor Kim Schumacher said: “When [my husband] Scott was sent to Afghanistan for a full year, Derrick checked on him all the time—always. He called me, reached out to me, sent me text messages. Whether it was his students, his family, the Army or the citizens of the United States, everyone came first. He looked out for everyone.”
Former WHS Teacher Liz Schultz benefitted from her friendship with Dr. Nelson as she contemplated switching professions. “He was a steady support during my last year in teaching when I really needed it, and helped me to decide to leave to do racial and economic justice work on a broader scale,” said Schultz. “In our goodbye conversation that year, he told me to ‘Go save the world.’”
Dr. Nelson also left a lasting impression on Dr. Martin Finkelstein, a professor at Seton Hall University who served as Dr. Nelson’s dissertation adviser. Finkelstein said: “Derrick was a gentleman, a gentle soul and just really easy to work with. If all students were like him I wouldn’t be retiring.”
Dr. Nelson’s presence in the school was powerful, and his support of all WHS students was a prominent part of his personality.
Senior Emma Wolynez said, “[Dr. Nelson] was good at being a disciplinarian when he had to be, but he was just like a dad to the school.”
Dr. Nelson’s genuine heart and warm personality impacted not only WHS, but all who knew him. His role both as an accomplished administrator and a beloved friend will forever be remembered.
Several weeks ago, Dr. Nelson spoke with the Hi’s Eye, inspired by the prospect of saving a life by donating his stem cells. But even before his procedure, Dr. Nelson, at his core, was selfless.
Dr. Nelson jumped at any opportunity to help those in need and gave endlessly without expecting anything in return. Every day, he committed himself to creating positive change inside and outside the school.
“[He was someone] who put himself in the back,” said DeSarno. “It was all about the students and the staff and then Dr. Nelson.”
Dr. Nelson’s generosity reverberated throughout the student body. “He truly listened to everyone’s individual voice and wanted to make WHS better every single day,” Herber said.
Dr. Nelson gave to others even in the simplest of ways.
In his first year as principal, Science Teacher Sara Liptack fondly recalls him starting the school year by hosting a barbecue for the whole staff. It eventually became an end-of-summer tradition and a positive way of starting the new school year.
For Dr. Nelson, giving was second nature. According to his Facebook page, for his birthday this year, in place of receiving gifts, Dr. Nelson requested donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He found the hospital’s mission important because the families never receive a bill from St. Jude.
Dr. Nelson held an essential role in creating the tight-knit community that WHS is today. Assistant Principal Warren Hynes refers to Dr. Nelson as the “anchor” of the school. “His goal in life was to serve others,” said Hynes. “He served his family, his friends, his fraternity, his college, this high school and our country.”
To Dr. Nelson, giving was not a self-promoting pursuit; it was a natural response and way of life. Schumacher said, “[Dr. Nelson was] truly selfless, he had that mentality that you give everything for others and you come last, and that’s something I carry in my heart, that he always put everyone else first.”
McLoughlin called him a “giant” in the WHS community. “To have that ability and to dedicate your life to always doing good for others is the key to a happy life,” she said. “He brought so much joy for so many people that I feel like he is a saint among us.”
Dr. Nelson’s Words to Live By
Dr. Derrick Nelson’s invaluable and inspiring impact will live on in both WHS and the greater Westfield community for years to come. To commemorate his legacy, the Hi’s Eye has gathered a compilation of some of Dr. Nelson’s most memorable quotes from throughout his time at WHS for all of us to remember and abide by.
All services for Derrick Nelson will be held at:
St. John’s Baptist Church
2387 Morse Avenue
Viewing – Monday, April 15
5:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Viewing – Tuesday, April 16
10:00 to 11:00 a.m.
Funeral Service – Tuesday April 16
11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.