Two profiles of Professor Randy Nelson on the eve of his retirement

Dr. Randy Nelson in his office, holding a framed copy of Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire, the first book he ever checked out of the library. Photo courtesy of Elayna Daniels ‘21.

FROM the EDITOR— For this week’s Living Davidson, Olivia Daniels ‘19 and Thomas Waddill ‘19 visited Dr. Randy Nelson in his office, to interview him for a profile in honor of his impending retirement. Rather than collaborate on a single piece, the writers felt best served by their respective, favored styles: for Daniels the journalistic, for Waddill the personal. What emerges is a portrait of Dr. Nelson I find fitting for his many roles in the English Department—rigorous grammarian and heartfelt humanitarian, esteemed scholar and creative mentor, architect and gardner. For my own piece, I’ve had the privilege of encountering Dr. Nelson in all these hats, and I’ve been made better for it. And so, jealous of these writers’ chance to pick their favorite (or most poignant) Nelson-ism, I’d like to leave you with mine: A cow is not a bad horse. (Believe me, it grows on you.) —Lucas Weals ‘19

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Olivia Daniels ‘19, Editor in Chief, on Nelson and the “Elegant Solution”

A large bulletin board layered with photographs dominates the east wall of Dr. Randy Nelson’s office. Covered by documentation of former Davidson students and friends, the board is ever growing thicker as Nelson simply pins new arrivals on top of what is already there. Never static, it represents the English professor’s deep commitment to staying in close contact with Davidson alumni as they spread out across the world. When Nelson officially retires in May, he will take the board home with him.

An Americanist by discipline, Nelson did not begin his academic career in literature. At North Carolina State University, he pursued a degree in architecture, an experience which has provided many of the fundamentals of his current approach to teaching. His life since has been dedicated to finding an “elegant solution with beautiful craftsmanship and original thinking.” At NC State, Nelson was inspired by English professors who taught him that literature contained “bigger problems than plot summary.” Tracing intertextuality amidst the theoretical revolution of the 1970s, he decided to pursue a graduate degree in American literature.

Before Princeton University, however, Nelson spent a year in the army. In 1972 the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was waning, and he served domestically. When the nuclear emergency alert went off at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Nelson followed protocol, believing the alert—executed with no working phone lines—indicated that the country was under imminent attack. Although the tornado warning made the same sound as the nuclear alert, Nelson had been prepared, and sobered, by the threat of the bomb: “I didn’t want to be the Second Lieutenant that lost the North American continent,” he reflects with a smile.

Nelson married his wife Susan when they were undergraduates. They had known of each other since childhood, and their grandmothers lived catty-corner. After dating Nelson on and off throughout high school, Susan pursued a degree in education, first at UNC Greensboro, and then as a transfer—and one of very few women—at Chapel Hill. The Nelsons lived in Chapel Hill and Raleigh during college, and each took turns commuting to school.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton, Nelson earned a teaching post at the University of Louisville. After a year there, he became aware of an open position at Davidson, where his father had attended. Nelson refers to his arrival at Davidson in 1977 as “the great stroke of good luck of my life.”

Nelson defines his teaching role as that of a mentor and a coach, and he continues to draw heavily from his architectural background. His classes, which have included The Art of Prose, American Literature to 2000, Legal Fictions, and Short Prose Fiction, boast rich lectures and challenging creative prompts.

Teaching, he finds, is “an interesting combination of craft and originality.” This philosophy has similarly manifested in his own writing. A novelist and short story writer, Nelson has won multiple awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Prize for his short story collection The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men. He began writing short stories to learn how to best bring them into the classroom, and Nelson looks forward to experimenting further with the genre in retirement.

As Nelson’s time at Davidson draws to a close, his legacy has been planted—literally—across the globe: in almost every state, Jerusalem, even outside the Kremlin. His love of gardening led him to gift hundreds of students with Japanese maple plants, and he keeps a record of where the trees have grown. Dr. Randy Ingram ’87 planted his tree at his parents’ house on the NC–VA border. Ingram, in the unique position of a Nelson student-turned-colleague, remains inspired by Nelson’s “generosity of spirit.” Nelson, he reflects, is one of those people who is “kinder up close and personal, [and] has a bigger soul than can be shown in the role of a professor.”

Dr. Shireen Campbell, current English department chair, concurs. She recalls the year during which her older son Jonathan required open heart surgery ahead of his 3rd birthday. Nelson, who was department chair at the time, asked if he could help. Campbell assured him there was nothing he could do, and she expressed her regret that her son would not be able to trick-or-treat that year despite already acquiring a Batman costume. Campbell remembers: “A few days before the surgery, I was at home when Randy knocked on the door. He had a present for Jonathan: a particularly cool toy Batmobile. Jonathan was delighted, and I was deeply moved.”

Nelson says that when it comes to the future of Davidson’s English program, “my faith is in the individuals who make up the department.” He will, inevitably, be missed by those individuals, who include Campbell and Ingram.

Reflecting on all his time at Davidson, Nelson does not hesitate. Finding people like Ingram, Patricia Cornwell ‘79, and Sheri Reynolds ‘89 has been “the big joy in my career,” he explains. In retirement, he will miss that “excitement of the classroom, of discovery.” Davidson will miss Nelson and his constant search for the “elegant solution.”

Olivia Daniels ‘19 is a History major from Phillipsburg, NJ. She can be reached for comment at oldaniels@davidson.edu.

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Thomas Waddill ‘19, Literary Correspondent, on “Planting Seeds and All That”

Besides the shelves, everything looks the same as it did when I was a nervous first-year going to office hours for the first time, swearing to myself that I wouldn’t accidentally call him “Mr. Nelson” instead of “Dr. Nelson” again. This is college, I remember thinking. They all have doctorates. And on top of that, legend had (has) it that Dr. Nelson was (is) the second person (ever) to hold a Ph.D. in American Literature. (The legend was, and is, true.) He’s the author of a book with a title no less comprehensive-sounding than The Almanac of American Letters. Of the professors I was getting introduced to, he seemed like the last one with whom I should make that mistake.

It’d be a lie to say he isn’t a little bit intimidating, at least at first, in the classroom. He’s the embodiment of the Professor: an imposing presence, bespectacled, bearded, sage, at the command of a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of his field. The one piece of advice he told Professor Parker when he (Parker) first started: “If you ain’t got nothing to profess, you ain’t got any business being a professor.” You (think you) know what he professes from day one, because he’ll literally profess it. He expects hard thinking, care, attention to detail, attention to everything.

Now I am, as I was then, arrested by the 8’x5’ collage—“three or four layers deep,” he tells us—that frames him from our perspective on the couch. It’s a scrapboard trove of pictures sent to him by former students, a mosaic of new mothers holding infants in hospital beds, of children in verdant yards below Japanese maples, of graduates crossing stages that are as likely to be the children of his former students as the students themselves. Apparently Physical Plant told him they’ll wrangle the whole thing through the door so he can take it with him at the end of the semester. I glance worriedly at the size of the doorframe.

But the shelves: they’re uncannily bare, save for about a dozen Faulkner books (by and about) and (probably, although I don’t really remember actually seeing it) a collection of Poe short stor—ahem, tales, Poe tales. Nelson, of all the English faculty, wouldn’t leave shelves uncrammed. I know that most of the books have been given away or moved home, but it’s unsettling. I’m sad that I can see through to the wall to which the shelves are bolted. I like to think that some of those books had been here for the entirety of the four decades that he’s been at Davidson.

But as I’m writing this, I see two books about American literature on my shelf (pile), which I realize I snagged from a box in front of his office last year. And it occurs to me the books haven’t disappeared: they’re scattered out across campus, on other bookshelves (or piles), in other hands, wedged into different racks of titles and names. There is one, however that I know won’t leave: a framed copy of Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire, which was the first book he ever checked out of the library. The librarian told his mom, “Don’t worry—he’ll grow out of it.”

“And, of course, I never did,” he tells us.

I guess that was the book that—at risk of really beating out this metaphor—“planted the seed” for Dr. Nelson, who is also an avid horticulturist. I remember at the end of my first semester for the last class meeting of ENG 220 going to his house, meeting his wife Susan, discussing Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and, finally, following him outside to a line of freshly potted plants, infantile and thin, each with a garnish of red unfurling seven-fingered hands: the beginnings of a tree. After letting us know matter-of-factly that students in the past have had difficulty getting these kinds of plants into the state of California, he thanked us for coming, and we thanked him for having us, and for the trees. He gave us no rhetorical flourish, no explicit articulation of the metaphor. But it was there: it was all in the act. The metaphor was literalized in that there is an actual Japanese maple growing in my yard in a partially shaded place of which my mom sends me pictures every once in a while.

That metaphor, teaching-as-gardening, is a cliché, and Dr. Nelson professes a constitutional allergy to clichés. (Ten years ago he wrote an article for a magazine called The Writer in which he listed 104 of what he saw as the most egregious creative writing clichés at the time.) We ask him about whether the maples are meant to be metaphorical, and he simultaneously accedes and brushes the question away: “Yeah, yeah—planting seeds and all that.”

Which is all to suggest: he sees something very real and meaningful in the literal act of giving students a sproutling; something real enough and meaningful enough to brave the cliché. I think I speak for other former students in saying, clichés be damned, the tree was real, and I love watering it when I’m home, and I am deeply grateful for this tree, and that gratefulness reminds me of the gratefulness that I feel for having been his student. My understanding of what it is that he professes was subtly changed—appended, maybe—by the maple. Once, I forwarded him a picture of the tree that my mom had sent me. He responded by telling me to send him a picture when my grandkids are climbing in it. And I plan to.

Last fall, Harvard Square published Nelson’s first novel, A Duplicate Daughter, easily found on Amazon. When asked if he has any last words for the English Department, he said, “I wouldn’t dare.” After retiring, he tells Olivia and I that he looks forward to tending to his garden of juniper and azaleas.

Thomas Waddill ‘19 is an English major from Beaumont, TX. He can be reached for comment at thwaddill@davidson.edu.

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