Blueprint for Life
Bill Nelson talks about the twists and turns of life and his determination to leave his mark on the community, his family and his business.
article by Barbara Leader | photography by Brad Arender
West Monroe engineer, businessman and visionary Bill Nelson has experienced both successes and challenges in his lifetime. But each one, he believes, is an integral part of God’s blueprint for his life – a life full of twists and turns driven by Nelson’s determination to leave his mark on the community, his family and his business.
Nelson, 81, was born in Dubach, but moved to West Monroe at 10 when his dad bought land for the family business, W.B. Nelson Lumber Co., now Nelson and Sons Inc.
“My mother loved me dearly, and she would have had me to stay home forever and I probably wouldn’t have manned up very well,” he said, slyly grinning. “My dad taught me a little about the meaning of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”
Nelson remembers working with his father in the business as a very young man; an experience he said taught him many life lessons and confirmed his desire for higher education.
“There were chores to be done at all times around our house, as well as in the business,” he said. “If I wasn’t doing something at the house, usually there was some sawdust that needed to be swept up around the saw mill.”
In the early days, Nelson Lumber was solely a producer of wooden pallets for product transportation, but it’s since expanded to include two more divisions and is now operated by the third generation of Nelsons
Nelson prepares for an engineering career
“After I graduated from Ouachita Parish High School in 1952 and we started talking about going to college, my dad didn’t have to say anything twice for me to make that decision,” he said. “I had already made my decision following the advice of one of my uncles. I followed in his footsteps to attend Louisiana Tech (University) and graduate in mechanical engineering.”
Nelson has the fee bill for his first term at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (now Louisiana Tech University) framed and displayed at his home. The total: $75.55 and that included room and board, registration and laundry.
At that time, Nelson had no idea his engineering degree would help him to mechanize and diversify his family’s business. His plan was to pursue an engineering career, which he did for several years before returning to join his dad at the saw mill. After graduation, Nelson went to work for Humble Oil Co., now Exxon.
He worked for the company in Arizona and Texas, where he met his wife Linda. As Bill related the story of meeting his wife, she interjected, “Oh Bill!” and giggled like a school girl as she remembered, too.
A love story of more than 55 years
“I’m going to tell you what, if this was not a meeting made in heaven, there are none,” Bill said.
Linda, who was originally from Tennessee, and Nelson were introduced by Nelson’s co-worker who lived next door to her in Houston, where she attended college.
“I worked in south Houston and Linda was a bridal consultant at Foley’s, a large department store located in downtown during its heyday. I arranged through this neighbor, well, I called Linda and said, ‘I’d like to meet you and take you out to eat,’ and I gave her a night.”
Linda agreed to go, but because the store was taking inventory she told him she might be late. Nelson said Linda gave specific instructions. “I’ll meet you where the employees exit out of the building,” he recalled her saying. “It was on a street corner there in downtown Houston. So, the long and short of it is…I picked Linda up on a street corner.”
“He tells everybody that and he doesn’t go into details,” Linda said, chastising Bill. “He just says he picked me up on the street corner.”
The love and the affection between the two is still obvious in their banter and excitement as they recalled those first days, interrupting each other to share their memories
“It didn’t take me but two or three dates and that was it,” Linda said. “I knew. We started dating in July and I got my ring at Christmas and we were married in April. He was everything I could have ever wanted or dreamed for.”
“I’ve got to share a funny with you,” said Bill, interrupting to tell the story of asking Linda’s dad for permission to marry her. “Mr. Taylor was cracking walnuts. I looked over at her dad and I said, ‘Mr. Taylor, I’m with the Humble Oil Company. I’ve got a good job, a good future and I think that I certainly can afford Linda and her needs.’
“Mr. Taylor looked back at me and he said, ‘Son, I wish you the best of luck because I’ve had her for 22 years and I haven’t been able to do that.’ I’ve been working on that promise ever since and she still reminds me, ‘You told me you could afford me.’” Linda has a twinkle in her eye when she admits that she uses the promise to persuade Bill, when she wants to make a purchase and he’s reluctant.
Starting a life together
The young couple moved from Texas to Arizona with Humble Oil and lived near a strategic air command base during the Cuban Missile crisis. “The government announced right after we moved there that they were going to build 18 Titan missile sites to surround and protect that base,” Nelson said.
Although the company he worked for benefitted from contracts on the project, the couple was concerned for its safety. They even had a survival plan in case of emergency.
“It was the most unlikely survival plan that you could ever have, because if an atomic bomb had landed anywhere near there, it would have taken out everything within 15 to 20 miles and the whole city of Tucson,” Bill said.
After living in both Tucson and Scottsdale, Bill’s father talked them into coming back to West Monroe to join the family business.
“My dad made a profound impact on me when he said, ‘You know, I can only offer you two things as far as coming back home. One is a good name, and the second is an opportunity.’
Joining the family business
“With my engineering background, I knew I could change the direction that the company was headed,” he said. “My dad believed that if you could work as hard as he could through the sweat of the brow and the strength of the back, then you’d make a good employee.” But Bill’s ideas were quite different.
“My approach was that I don’t want you to sweat and I sure don’t want you to hurt your back, so I’m going to put you in a sound-proof air conditioned cab and let you push a bunch of buttons.
“I knew we were going to have to be labor intensive, which is the direction he was headed, or we were going to have to be capital intensive.”
Bill sold his dad on the idea of investing $30,000 to make changes, and the investment paid off quickly.
As Bill began automating processes, he accumulated three patents. The company is now owned by two of Bill’s sons, Todd and Tim, while he still remains active as chairman of the board. The Nelsons also have another son, Trey, and a daughter, Bonalyn Nelson Boyd.
Nelson and Sons Inc. started with a single focus, but now has three distinct divisions – the pallet division, the container division and pallet recycling.
“I think we’re blessed in using one of God’s natural resources in the form of wood, and I think wood will always be a product of choice for use in shipping,” Nelson said. “I think all of our products have a good outlook, simply because we’re using renewable resources. ”
It was Bill’s visionary ideas that helped the company diversify and grow through tough economic times, but he said the start his dad gave him with his “good name” was priceless.
“In his day, you concluded transactions through the shake of a hand,” he said. “How could you go out and honestly face people in transactions, if they didn’t have faith in your good name? I think it’s highly essential in anybody’s business that there be a good relationship between the people that are doing business.”
Committed to a life of service
Through the years, Bill elevated his involvement in the community and his church. He received many honors, among them the A.O. Evans award, the Louisiana Tech University Alumnus of the Year and the Louisiana Tech University Distinguished Service Award.
He served on the Louisiana Tech Engineering Foundation board, helping organize and implement an endowment fund drive, increasing it from about $100,000 to $2 million. He led the effort to secure funding to construct a new $14.4 worship center, preschool and fellowship building at First Baptist Church in West Monroe.
Nelson served on the planning and zoning commission for the City of West Monroe that assisted in drafting a development plan for the city, an effort he now believes must extend to the parish for the area to continue to thrive.
Bill’s energy and enthusiasm as he talks about his business, family, friends and faith belies his health.
Nelson has terminal cancer.
Yet even with as few as three months to live, Bill finds opportunities in his future.
Evaluating the facts and moving forward
A little more than two years ago, he found a spot, a very rare cancer, on his right eye. The spot was determined to be a uveal melanoma. Specialists at the Cleveland Clinic tried treatment, but eventually removed his eye.
Because uveal melanoma has a high incidence of moving into the liver, Bill was advised to have an ultrasound and a PET scan. The diagnostic tests showed the cancer has metastasized in his liver. Other than a couple of medical trials that Bill called “too far out there,” there are no treatment options.
“I’m an engineer who has been taught all my life to gather as many facts as I can and then sort those facts out and make a rational decision,” he said.
And he has. Bill doesn’t plan to change anything in his life, other than having to allow Linda to do all of their driving.
They enjoy socializing with family and friends and watching movies in the media room of their meticulously designed home, the home of a life-long engineer. Bitsy, his Yorkshire terrier, has always been his companion, but since his diagnosis she refuses to leave his side. “It’s almost like she knows,” Linda said.
In his garage, Bill hosts gear head parties for men who, like him, enjoy cars. Bill owns a 1928 Model A two-door Ford. “I hope to have at least one more party,” he said.
The Anchor Holds
He’s continuing with his civic and church work and has started a ministry of his own. It’s called “The Anchor Holds,” based on an inspirational song.
“This comes from the lyrics of the song… ‘no matter how battered the ship might be or how bad the sail may be torn, our anchor still holds,” he said. “Jesus is still in charge. God’s still in charge and as long as that anchor is there, we’re going to be alright.”
“In my ministry, I stress that even in the mode of being terminally ill, you still have opportunities to be a witness to others,” he said.
Linda now wears a custom designed necklace Bill gave her recently. It’s an anchor with a cross at the top to represent their faith in God and two rubies on the points of the anchor in honor of each of their birthdays. A rope twists around the neck of the anchor from top to bottom. “That rope has bound us together for over 50 years and binds us to the cross,” Linda said, stroking the pendant.
Despite his prognosis, Bill believes he still hasn’t completed his life’s work.
“Mine’s kind of winding down,” he said. “But I believe that God has a plan for your life and for my life, and I think that I will only be called home when He thinks, not when M.D. Anderson thinks, but when He thinks that I’ve served my purpose on earth, according to His plan. That’s when He will call me home.”