William Nelson '51, O.D. '53 : Still carrying the milk

To follow William (Bill) Nelson's '51, O.D.'53, unusual career path, which veers from optometry to horticulture, it helps to follow the trail of his many good deeds, including one that took place during his undergraduate years at Pacific. While working in the cafeteria, Nelson carried the milk bottles for a fellow student and cafeteria employee named Louise Leding '51.

The deed stood out then because, in a college filled to the brim with male students (thanks largely to the G.I. Bill), Nelson was the only one who offered to carry the milk. And the deed stands out now because it marked the start of a friendship between Leding and Nelson that blossomed into a 54-year marriage.

Nelson's life has been marked by many other acts of simple kindness, often with similarly positive results. He entered Pacific because he wanted to attend the college with the nation's best optometry school - a profession he selected, not surprisingly, because it "seemed like an awfully good thing to do."

After graduating from Pacific's College of Optometry, Nelson's poor vision kept him out of the Korean War. He and Louise were married by then, and moved to San Diego and then nearby Chula Vista, where Nelson started his optometry practice. Soon after, two fellow alumni, W. Keith Wilson '53, O.D. '54, and Robert Wold, O.D. '64, who passed away in 2001, joined Nelson in a three-person practice.

As it turned out, Nelson did not spend the rest of his working life as an optometrist, though he said it was not for any lack of enthusiasm about the career. "I thoroughly enjoyed my work," he said.

Instead, it was another of his good deeds that changed Nelson's life. To help area children learn to appreciate life and nature, he and Chula Vista's city manager decided to give away more than 2,000 Monterey pine seedlings to area third-graders. Nelson laughs now about their naivete - the Monterey pine is terribly disease-prone, and wrapping the seedlings in wet napkins did nothing to help the seedlings' chances at survival.

Though most of the seedlings didn't survive, Nelson's enthusiasm was buoyed by the two-inch-thick stack of letters he received from students, saying how much the experience mattered to them. "A lot of those youngsters had never before taken an active interest in living things," he said.

The students' excitement mirrored Nelson's own. Soon after the seedling giveaway, he started a living Christmas tree nursery called Nelson's Pine Patch. According to Louise, her husband believed people would buy living Christmas trees if only they were available. He started the nursery, she said, in large part "so we wouldn't have to cut any more trees down."

Nelson continued to practice optometry for 10 years, even as Nelson's Pine Patch flourished, and as Nelson pursued his growing interest in conifers, quickly becoming the region's leading conifer expert. By the early 1970s, he was asked to help create the San Diego Wild Animal Park's 25-acre Conifer Forest, which Nelson regards as the finest collection of warm-climate conifers in the nation.

Nelson admitted it's difficult to put into words what drew him to become a horticulturist and arborist, or what led him in 1976 to leave his optometry practice and turn Nelson's Pine Patch into Pacific Tree Farms, a nursery selling a wide range of plants and trees. "I think it's the mystery of the plants, from propagation to growth to development," he said. "Many haven't been studied enough to learn where they might grow well, and I find that interesting."

Pacific Tree Farms, with its five acres of rare and unusual trees and plants - those Nelson felt held the greatest mystery - closed this summer. Nelson filled the final days of the nursery with plenty of good deeds - thousands of them, in fact, as he donated about half his 15,000 trees to area gardens and parks, as well as to youth groups and individuals.
Nelson plans to fill his retirement, if it must be called that, with many more acts of kindness. He hopes to create a botanical garden in his hometown of Lewiston, Mont. And he wants to get seedlings to the town of Julian, 90 miles east of San Diego, where a recent fire destroyed hundreds of thousands of trees.

William Nelson
Bill Nelson was honored in January by Southwestern College in California with the naming of a campus garden, the William Nelson Gathering Place, after serving for many years on the advisory board.