Petoskey's Mr. Nelson taught every grade during his career
Retired North Central Michigan College professor Donald Wayne Nelson swaps teacher stories with his daughter, Lisa Pontoni, who teaches at Petoskey High School. (JAMIE BAUMANN/NEWS-REVIEW / January 2, 2013)
He described special moments that he experienced when first-graders initially understood that letters and sounds made up words and began to read, or when adolescents trusted him enough to seek his advice about a dilemma they faced, or when college philosophy students approached him years later to share how his class had changed their lives. It is evident that Nelson enjoyed his four decades of teaching that began in a one-room schoolhouse in Hebron Township in 1939. After graduating from Cheboygan High School and one year of training at Cheboygan County Normal School, he was delighted to start this first position teaching about 27 students in grades K-8.
"I lived on a farm and walked up and down hills to get to the school," Nelson, who now lives in Petoskey, said. "I developed the herringbone pattern of going uphill on skis to get there in the winter, but I never did learn to turn very well. Just pointed the way I wanted to go and went downhill,"
It wasn't unusual for him to bring his shotgun with him to school, as he would hunt birds on the way to school and on the way home.
"No one thought anything about it at the time," he said.
In the one-room schoolhouse, everyone became teachers, as older students helped younger ones and friends helped each other with lessons.
To teach outside of a rural one-room schoolhouse required a college education, so after a couple of years, Nelson headed for Central Michigan University to earn a teaching degree in public speaking and political science. However, the U.S. Army had other plans for Nelson, and he was drafted into the infantry, serving in both theaters in World War II. During his four years in the service, Nelson became an instructor at Camp Plauche, New Orleans, where he trained future officers.
In addition, he worked both as a defense and as a prosecutor for court martial proceedings.
"I told my superior officer that I didn't have any legal background, but he said that I had a background in public speaking and debate, and that was good enough to be a defense counsel," Nelson laughed. "Then, I got so many defendants off, that he decided to make me a prosecutor instead."
Out of the army, Nelson returned to CMU to finish his teaching degree in 1948. He was hired as a graduate student teacher by the University of Florida, when he taught undergraduate students in speech and debate. He was at UF working on his master's degree the first year the campus allowed women to be students.
"Never have I seen so many, chase so few, for so little," he joked, as there were very few women and many men at the school.
From 1950 to 1955, Nelson taught speech and debate at Colorado State University; however, wanting to return to his Michigan roots, he accepted a position at Lansing High School where he taught public speaking, interpretive reading and parliamentary procedure. He coached debate and tennis. He also taught evening classes in speech and communication classes at Michigan State University.
When North Central Michigan College opened, Nelson was one of the first professors hired. He taught at North Central for 24 years from 1959 through 1983 when he retired. He taught political science, philosophy, public speaking, debate and physical education. Now, three of his children are teachers. Lisa Pontoni and Gretchen Lucky teach at Petoskey High School. Marta Dennis teaches third grade at Lincoln Elementary in Petoskey.
Nelson's son-in-law, Mark Pontoni teaches for the Char-Em Midtown program. Pontoni said that even now when he is out to dinner with Nelson, it is common for students from 25 years ago to stop and share stories about being in Nelson's class and the impact he made on their lives.
"All teachers will find that they have changed others and have stories to tell," Nelson said, as he emphasized with pride the importance and honor of being a teacher.