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Former ASU President J. Russell Nelson dies at 86

He saw the university through major physical expansions, including the opening of the West campus, and played a key role in first comprehensive fundraising campaign

Then-ASU President J. Russell Nelson at the opening of the West campus.
March 23, 2016

J. Russell Nelson, the 14th president of Arizona State University for whom the Nelson Fine Arts Center is named, died at his home in Tempe on Wednesday. He was 86.

The cause of death was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, according to his family.

“Russell Nelson honed Arizona State’s mission and energized the university to excel beyond what had previously been accomplished,” said Michael M. Crow, ASU’s president since 2002. “Through his expertise and passionate advocacy, Russell made significant strides forward in scholarship funding, campus facilities and student services.”

Nelson led the university from 1981 to 1989. He saw ASU through major physical expansions, including the opening of the West campus, the addition of the fine arts center that bears his name, and the construction of Karsten Golf Course.

During his tenure, ASU also acquired more than $12 million in scholarship funding and nearly $10 million in endowed faculty positions.

Former ASU President J. Russell Nelson

In the early 1980s, J. Russell Nelson played a major role in ASU’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign. Top photo: Nelson (right) at the dedication of the West campus. Photos courtesy of (top) ASU Libraries and the Office of the President

In the early 1980s, Nelson played a major role in ASU's first comprehensive fundraising campaign. His focus and dedication helped the Centennial Campaign for ASU raise more than $114 million for the growing university.

As part of the fundraising campaign, Nelson created the ASU President’s Club, an organization of donors whose gifts are used for university advancement at the discretion of the president. Joined by a handful of passionate visionaries, he began a tradition of enthusiasm and support that has built momentum through the tenures of three ASU presidents: Nelson, Lattie F. Coor and Crow. Today, the President’s Club roster lists more than 500 members. As the club’s membership has grown, so has its impact, providing funding for hundreds of projects and initiatives.

“Russ Nelson was a more important leader in the evolution of ASU as a major research university than is widely known in Arizona,” said Coor, who succeeded Nelson as president of ASU. “His quiet demeanor, coupled with a determined and disciplined leadership style, moved the University forward in a way that has made its subsequent successes possible.”

Jack Russell Nelson was born on Dec. 18, 1929, in Portland, Oregon, the son of a hospital administrator and a nurse.

He married his wife, Bonita (Casey) Nelson, in 1951. Bonita described herself as a housewife but worked a number of jobs as her children grew up, including recordkeeping in a doctor’s office and contract administration for Ball Aerospace. She passed away in 2014.

Nelson earned his bachelor's degree in business and economics from Pacific Union College and his master’s in business administration and doctorate in finance from the University of California Los Angeles. From 1961-1970, he served as an associate professor in finance at the University of Minnesota. In 1970, Nelson became vice provost and professor in finance at the University of Colorado Boulder. During his time at the university, he was rapidly promoted — to associate provost, vice president for budgets and planning, vice president of administration, and acting chancellor. He became the chancellor in 1978.

He is survived by three sons — Richard, Robert and Ronald Nelson — as well as a foster son, two foster daughters and four grandchildren.

Nelson had many fond memories from his tenure at ASU. He liked to tell the story of the time he and his wife were entertaining Walter Cronkite at their home and their daughter returned from a dance. In a 2006 interview, Nelson talked about how Cronkite asked her if she knew how to waltz. She replied that she did not, so Cronkite proceeded to teach her in the entryway of the Nelsons’ home.

Nelson’s son Richard said his father and mother made many lifelong friends at the university.

“My father enjoyed every minute of his time at ASU,” he said. 

No memorial service is planned. Richard Nelson said those who wish to remember his father with a gift may donate to the New American University Scholarship fund on his behalf.

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