File #3518: "soh-0047_transcript.pdf"


Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)
Moakley Archive and Institute

Oral History Interview of James Nelson
Interview Date: November 16th, 2018
Interview By: Derek Briand and James Usovicz
Citation: Nelson, James Interviewed by Derek Briand and James Usovicz, Suffolk University
Oral SOH-047, November, 2018. Transcript and audio available. Moakley Archive and Institute,
Suffolk University, Boston, MA.
Copyright Information: Copyright © 2018 Suffolk University

Interview Summary
James “Jim” Nelson, the former Athletic Director at Suffolk University, discusses his forty-seven
years at the university. Coach Nelson describes his early life, including his time attending, and
playing, basketball at Boston College with basketball legend Bob Cousy. He discusses the
growth of Suffolk University, the evolution of the athletics department, the various roles he
played on campus, and notable sports highlights such as Suffolk’s participation in the NCAA
championship tournaments. The interview concludes with Nelson’s account of the touching
story of a Suffolk hockey player, John Gilpatrick, who was paralyzed during a game and
miraculously regained his ability walk years later.

Subject Headings
College sports – Massachusetts – Boston
Law, Charles
Nelson, James E.
Suffolk University – History

Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)


CHRIS DWYER: We are good in here, so whenever you're ready.


JIM NELSON: Thank you, Chris.
PROFESSOR REEVE: Today is Friday, November 16th, and we are interviewing Coach James
Nelson. And I’ll now turn it over to the interviewers.

JIM NELSON: Thank you.

JAMES USOVICZ: Now Coach Nelson, you’ve been a renowned figure in the Suffolk

JIM NELSON: Thank you for that compliment. [Laughter]

JAMES USOVICZ: We’re just doing research on—on your history and everything at Suffolk. I
mean it’s—it’s clear that you’ve been a major figure here, as an educator, as a coach, as a mentor
of students. And with that, do we—[simultaneous conversation]

DEREK BRIAND: With that, do you want to—do you want to get into it? Yeah. So you started
at BC [Boston College]. We’re going to start with that. Let’s go with that. [Laughter] You started
at BC. Going to—going to college four years, playing basketball. You’ve gone through that. And
then, you're coming to Suffolk. What brought you to Suffolk, coming from an institution like
BC, over into—over into Suffolk, and working in the athletic department?


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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

JIM NELSON: Well, let me back up a little bit before Boston College, because when I was in
high school, my predecessor, Charles Law, who was the athletic director and head men’s
basketball coach here at Suffolk University for thirty-three years he wanted to recruit me to come
to play basketball at Suffolk. And I came over my senior year in high school, in 1960. And I took
the walk up, Temple Street, the original building, the Archer Building that was at that location. I
guess we would say that its physical address was actually Derne Street.

But I walked up Temple Street, and walked by an Episcopal Church—correction, a Methodist
Church, on—on that location. And I went in to have an interview with the then director of
admissions, a gentleman by the name of Brad Sullivan. And Brad also was a longtime employee
of the university. I enjoyed my interview with Brad. And it was in the Archer Building, as I said,
which was the only building on campus. And that building housed both the law school and the—
the undergraduate programs of arts and science and the business school. It was just known as the
business school at that time, later to become the Sawyer School of Business.

I also continued to have a relationship with Mr. Law and the Suffolk University basketball team,
during my four years at Boston College, due to the fact that Suffolk practiced and played their
home games over at the Cambridge YMCA. And I grew up in Cambridge. Actually, I was a
youth member of the Cambridge YMCA, the first—that’s how I first got to meet my future
coach, Bob Cousy, because I became a ball boy at the Y for the Celtics on that.

And because Suffolk practiced and played there, during the semester break, when I was home, I
would continue to go down to the Y to work out, to stay in condition. And the Suffolk team was
practicing there. And there were times when they did not have another ten players. And Coach
Law would ask if I would scrimmage with them. So I maintained you know, a peripheral
relationship with—with Suffolk and—and Coach Charlie Law.

After graduating, from Boston College, I did the one year at what was then called Boston State
College, now a part of the merger with UMass Boston, to get a master’s degree. And that’s when

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

I was told by a fellow who was on the Suffolk baseball team, Dan Harvey, whom I knew, that
Suffolk was looking for to hire an additional individual, the second full-time employee. And I
found that of great interest to me, and went to visit Mr. Law, who had property down on Cape
Cod at that time. So I visited him during—during the summer. And he said, “Well, why don’t
you make an interview to go in and see the then-President Johnny Fenton, Sr.?”

And I'm going to come back to that in a moment because you asked me about my years at Boston
College. After graduating from North Cambridge Catholic High School, I did the one year at a
preparatory school called the Huntington School for Boys. The Huntington School for Boys was
located in the Huntington YMCA. As you can see, YMCA and Jim Nelson have a—have a
connection on that.

JAMES USOVICZ: It goes back a little bit.

JIM NELSON: It goes back a little bit on there. And it was a wonderful year. They had terrific
professors, all with PhD degrees from various Ivy League schools teaching at the Huntington
School for Boys. And we had the good fortune that year to win the Class A New England Prep
School title. And in doing that, I think it enhanced Boston College’s interest in me, and coming
to play for BC.

And I decided that that would be the place that I would go on to get my undergraduate degree,
not realizing that I would then have the opportunity to play for my boyhood idol, and probably
everyone else’s boyhood idol, that was interested in the sport of basketball, the individual known
as Mr. Basketball, the Houdini of the Hardwood, Bob Cousy. [Laughter] And it was a great
thrill. To this day, I—I remain in contact with Coach. He turned ninety last August. I speak to
him about once a month.

We may get into—there’s a recent book that just came out called The Last Pass. The author is a
Stanford professor by the name of Gary Pomerantz, who also wrote a book on Wilt Chamberlain,

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

called Wilt 1962. And that was the year, 1962, that Wilt scored his 100 points, still the NBA
record. And also, Wilt averaged 50 points a game. But it’s an interesting book, The Last Pass.
And its Cousy’s outreach to his teammate, Bill Russell that Cousy, in his own mind, thinks he
should have done more to make Russell feel welcomed, given some of the unfortunate events
that happened to Russell during his years here in Boston.

DEREK BRIAND: So basketball. It’s probably the most defining thing that we can find about
you. Would you say that basketball has been the driving force of this kind of progression for you
going from early life at the Y, to time at BC, to going to Suffolk? Was that always something
that you wanted to continue doing and pursue?

JIM NELSON: No question. I started playing in the sixth grade for the Agassiz School over in
Cambridge. It was—Agassiz School was an incredibly interesting place that the student
population was comprised of two different elements, in the sense that there were the blue collar
children, of which I fell into that category, my father being a taxi driver all his life, and my mum
being a domestic who cleaned the homes of wealthy individuals, in particular, those that were
professors at Harvard University.

And their children, those professors at Harvard University, were my classmates at the Agassiz
School. And then, when it came down time to make a decision on where to go to high school, it
was either to go to what was then known as Cambridge Latin High School, which is now
Cambridge Rindge and Latin, they merged many years later on, or to what was then called St.
John’s High School up in North Cambridge. And I had an older brother that went to Cambridge
Latin High School, who, after high school, went into serve our country in the United States
Marine Corps. And he became a career Marine, serving our country for thirty years, and two
tours in Vietnam.

My older sister, Lynn, also went to Cambridge Latin High School, and then became a nurse. And
then she also served our country as—in the Naval Nurse Corps, and was stationed over in

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

Nationalist China, or Formosa, now Taiwan, during the Vietnam War. And it was interesting that
when she got married to another naval officer, my brother, who was serving in Vietnam, was the
only family member to go to that wedding, because he was on R & R. And then my other sister
had gone up to St. John’s High School. And I decided that I would investigate that. And at that
time, the tuition was $50 dollars a year, of which we couldn’t afford. And my aunt, Esther
Mulverhill, God rest her soul, stepped forward, and for those four years that I was there, and the
four years that my sister was there, she paid the $50 dollars. And thank you, Aunt Esther, as

So I continued to play basketball in—in high school. I was chosen as a freshman to be on the
varsity squad. But at that point, I was only about five-six or five-seven. But between my
freshman and sophomore years, I had my growth spurt, and which was interesting, because my
mum was a short person, and my father was only about five-eight if that. And my siblings, not
much taller than that. So I had that fortunate growth spurt, as far as basketball was concerned,
grew those six inches. And from that—that point on, became a varsity starter for North
Cambridge Catholic, and enjoyed my time in my parochial education there very much.

JAMES USOVICZ: So I know you mentioned earlier working with Charles Law. And I
understand he was a pretty significant figure here, in terms of athletics. So we’re kind of
wondering, how did working with him affect your own service as an athletic director?

JIM NELSON: Okay. Well, as I said, I—once I heard from that they were going to hire
someone, and then met with him, he—he suggested that I go and have an interview with two
individuals, two icons of our university, the then-President Johnny Fenton, Sr., and VicePresident/Treasurer Frank—Frank Flannery. And, as I sat there in the room, being interviewed in
the President’s room, President Fenton said, “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” And I said,
“Well, I've recently graduated from Boston College, where Bob Cousy was my coach.” And
immediately he perked up, and he said, “Bob—Bob Cousy? He played at Holy Cross.” And I
said, “Of course.” He says—He says, “I'm a Holy Cross grad myself.” And he say, “I love Bob
Cousy.” [Laughter]

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Well, things started looking pretty positive at that point. And then the next thing he said was,
“Well, tell me a little bit more about yourself.” “Well, I'm over at the Sacred Heart Parish in
Watertown. And my Monsignor is Monsignor Fallon.” He said, “Monsignor Fallon? My
classmate at Holy Cross.” And—and then he looked at Frank Flannery, and he said, “Young
Nelson seems to have all the credentials that we need.” [Laughter] I'm not sure if things happen
that way anymore, but I'm glad they did at that particular point.

But there was also another individual who was sitting in the room, off to the side, whom I did not
get to meet afterwards. And it turned out to be Bill Coughlin. Bill Coughlin, for many years, and
that was—that year was 1966. And Bill was there interviewing to become the dean of admissions
at Suffolk. And, as it turns out, Bill Coughlin had even better credentials than I did. I thought my
credentials were pretty good. He was the roommate of Johnny Fenton, Jr., the President’s son.
[Laughter] So obviously, Nelson and Coughlin had the right connections on that. And from that
point on, Bill Coughlin and I continue to remain wonderful friends. And he calls me, and I call
him so very often.

And that was the year, ’66-’67, that we opened the second building here on—well, what was
then Suffolk University’s campus, the Donahue Building. And during my time here at Suffolk, I
believe I've had either eight or nine—might even be ten different office locations if that. And
when I arrived, Charlie Law and I moved into an office on the first floor of the Donahue
Building. And we stayed two weeks at that location. They said, “Well, there are other offices,
departments that need that space.” And we moved across the street to 56 Temple, one of the
brownstones at that location. And a beautiful building that Suffolk had just purchased, that had
not been rehabilitated. It was dusty, and—But it turned out to be home for a number of years.

And we held onto that location. We first started in the front office of it, and then that was the
beginning of bringing in computers, the big—what would you say—A-frames, huge things. And

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so they needed the front room. So they moved us, the athletics, to the back. But that was—that
was fine, because I was hired to be the assistant director to Charlie Law. And my responsibilities
were to be a physical education instructor over at the Cambridge YMCA for a morning class, for
freshman boys, from nine to ten. It was a no-credit course, but it was required of freshman boys.
And it was an outgrowth of the John F. Kennedy health initiative on that.

And my responsibility was to be there at nine o’clock, and to go through calisthenics with the
class. And then we would break down into various other activities, whether it was playing
basketball, or indoor floor hockey. They also had racquetball courts and squash courts. There
was a weight room there. There was a boxing ring with speed bags and heavy bags. And I would
spend my time, from nine to ten, at that location.

And then, some of the days, I would also come over here to the office. Not all the time, because
we practiced for the basketball team, I was assistant basketball coach. I was assistant—assistant
baseball coach. I was head coach of cross-country. Anything else that Mr. Law wanted me to do,
put it on my plate. That would be fine. But because we practiced at two o’clock, there were some
days that I would just stay over at the Y, waiting for the team to come over early, to go over
some of the various drills.

And also, I enjoyed staying, because in addition to Suffolk University practicing and playing at
the Cambridge Y, the Boston Celtics practiced and played at the Cambridge Y. And you know,
that was note-taking for me, watching some of those—those practices at that time. The transition
had been made from Cousy, who retired in 1963, and Russell coached for three years.
Correction, Red Auerbach coached for an additional three years. And then Russell took over
as—as the coach of it.

And it—and it’s also interesting to note, as we mentioned, Bill Russell, he was also the
commencement speaker at Suffolk University in 2007 for our centennial event, when the Suffolk
University Centennial Commencement for both the law and undergraduate was held at the

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

Boston Garden. And Russell came over as the speaker. And he wasn’t as prepared as I thought
he should be. But he—he still got $75,000 dollars for it. [Laughter]

DEREK BRIAND: Can we go another step back a little bit? Can we talk about the first years at
Suffolk, and those challenges, or things that you had to do, to get yourself in, and continue
forward with such a large job as you so described?

JIM NELSON: Well, when I received the job, I did have a second job that was offered to me.
And it was to be an English teacher at Rindge Vocational School in Cambridge. So I had a
choice to make. Should I take the teaching position at—at Rindge Vocational for $5,200 dollars?
Or should I take the job at Suffolk for $5,000 dollars? And I said, “Well, for an extra $200
dollars, I think I’ll take the Suffolk job on that.” As I like to say, that 1967—’66-’67 year was a
wonderful year for me, because I now had a full-time employment. I was a very wealthy man,
making $5,000 dollars a year. I was married that—in January of ’67. We had our first child in
December of ’67. And we bought our first home for $25,000 dollars on that, a big step at that
point. So ’66-’67 was a great year for me.

But as far as the—the challenges, you know, when you're young there are no challenges. There
are opportunities on that. And I consider myself very fortunate to remain involved in athletics, in
particular at an institution of higher learning, a place that I had some familiarity with. The
challenges that some people would say, “Well, you know, you had to go back and forth to the—
from the Y to Suffolk, and then to Suffolk and back,” and the one thing that I remember was a
challenge, and certainly we around here, in downtown Boston, and obviously in Cambridge,
could all—can relate, the challenge of finding a parking space. [Laughter] Where to stay.

And then going back and forth, back and forth, to the Y, I would leave my car five-six days a
week at various locations. And there were some days I would forget, you know, “Where did I
park my car?” [Laughter] And as it turned out, there was one day I just couldn’t find it.
[Laughter] So I got on the T, and I took the T home. And my wife said, “Where’s the car?” And I

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

said, “I don’t know.” [Laughter] And I went back the next morning, and, you know, sometimes
things just click in your mind. And I said, “Oh yeah, that’s where it is,” and now as well. So I
guess I was fortunate that I was, you know, still living in the Cambridge area. And you know, I
wasn’t in Worcester and forgot where the car was on that.

You know, recruiting could be a little bit of a challenge to get athletes to come, and particularly
in the sport of basketball, because we did not have our own gymnasium or facility. And you
know, obviously, at that time, we did not have dormitories as well. But for me, it was never a
challenge because I grew up in the Y as a youth member. I played basketball for the YMCA
teams, and so it was like home for me.

I was also assistant coach for the baseball program. And the head coach was a former student
athlete, and former professional baseball player by the name of George Doucette. And George
was as knowledgeable about his sport of baseball as Charlie Law was for his sport of basketball.
And although I had played baseball and basketball in high school, not as successfully in baseball,
but I knew the sport. I had not played it in college, and had been away from it. And I recall that
first day of baseball practice, when we went over to Smith Field, over in the Brighton-Allston
section, where all of our practices were. Baseball, we played absolutely no home games at all.
We did play home games for the basketball at the Cambridge Y. But baseball, we didn’t have a
home field for years and years and years. So we just practiced there.

And George said to me, “Go hit Fungos to the outfield.” I hadn't swung a bat in five years.
[Laughter] So instead of taking the Fungo bat, which is a lot narrower, but you know, is a lot
lighter and allows you to hit fly balls once you become familiar with it. I took the heaviest bat I
could, that had the biggest barrel. And you know, thank the Lord I threw that first one up to hit
out, and I hit a fly—I hit—hit a fly ball out to the outfield. And—and great to my relief, because
I think the outfielders would have said, “Who’s this coach? He can't even hit a fly ball out to us.”
Oh man.

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But after having done that for about 45 minutes, when I went home, my shoulders and arms were
killing me on that. And my wife says, “How come you're hunched over?” I said, “I need a hot
bath at this point.” So I got a hot bath, and rubdown, and put a lot of Bengay on, and went back
the next day to hit additional fly balls as well.

DEREK BRIAND: With the correct bat?

JIM NELSON: No, that—that took a long time. [Laughter] But I'm proud to say that, after—
and I did—I was assistant baseball coach for ten years—I was able to finally master the Fungo
bat. And Coach Doucette would have me do the infield and outfield drills before games, when
we were on the road. And I could, at the end of it, you know, you—you know, you want to hit a
Fungo pop-up to the catcher on that. And if you go to see, a lot of people would just take the ball
and throw it up in the air. I could hit that thing fifteen feet in the air, right over home plate, and
let it come down straight down on that. One of my great athletic accomplishments. [Laughter]

DEREK BRIAND: I was going to ask.

JIM NELSON: Uh-huh. No question.

DEREK BRIAND: I’d like to ask about the NCAA Tournament. Was that one of your proudest
moments here at Suffolk? Or was it something else?

JIM NELSON: Well, there are—there are a number of them that I'm proud to say I have as
prideful moment—moments at Suffolk University. Obviously, forty-seven years full-time
employment, the only full-time job that I ever had. And then this is my 52nd year of association
with the university. So there are—there are countless numbers on that. I hope we’ve got enough
video here that will be going well into the evening here. And it’s only ten o’clock in the morning
right now on that.

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Certainly, participation in the first four NCAA Division III tournaments was wonderful for—for
our university. Prior to that, up until 1974, college sports under the NCAA was just university
division and college division. And in 1974, the NCAA decided that they would federate, and
there would be three divisions, Division I, that we all—that so much of the public understands as
big time college sports, you know, Boston College, UCLA, Michigan. And then there would be
Division II. We know that the Division I gives full-time grants and aids or athletic scholarships.
Division II—II, schools such as Bentley College, St. Anselm’s, Merrimack College, although
they're going Division I this year for all of their sports. But they’ve long been ice hockey in
Division—Division I. They could also give grant and aids or athletic scholarships, but at a lesser
number, and a little less emphasis on big time college sports.

And then Division III, which has the most schools nationally, around 450 now, might be 475
now, since I've retired on that. They do not give athletic scholarships. Financial aid is based on
two components, financial need and academic merit on that. So we, in—as members of Division
III, we were so proud that those first four years we were able to be in the Division III
Championship. But also, it meant that we could no longer give athletic scholarships. And the fact
that we did not have our own athletic facility really began to inhibit us initially in recruiting
athletes. And we did not have residence halls. So our recruiting base essentially was, you know,
how far did the red line or the blue line or the green line go? And that individuals could
comfortably come from their home to this location as well.

JAMES USOVICZ: So I understand one kind of major issue for Suffolk has always been sort of
buildings and facilities, especially for athletics. So what was it like kind of working—while
trying to work with other colleges and universities and the YMCA to sort of find facilities? And
then, how did that really change with the Ridgeway?

JIM NELSON: The Ridgeway Building? Mm-hmm. Well, over the years, and I'm pleased to
say that there have been many wonderful institutions, individuals, communities that have reached
out to assist us in those years when we did not have any on-campus athletic facilities, and

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

building relationships, you know, regardless of one’s profession or responsibilities, is a major
component of what one should be doing. And I was fortunate that at our sister institutions, Bill
Flynn, who was the longtime athletic director at my alma mater, Boston College, assisted us and
allowed us to use some of their facilities for some practices, and, in particular, for ice hockey in
those early years, to play some games there.

But so did Boston University, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Babson College, and
Brandeis University. You know, they all stepped forward and—and accepted my phone call, and
said, “Sure. Let’s check schedules and see whether or not we have something available to you.”
But so did the City of Boston Parks and Recreation, a fellow by the name of Paul McCafferty,
who heads up the permitting division, a longtime good friend. The City of Cambridge, where the
recreation director, Kevin Clark, played basketball, was a wonderful player for us on that. The
city of Somerville, Dilboy Stadium, we used that for our soccer program for years.

The city of Quincy, Adams Field, for—for baseball games. And that contact was an individual
by the name of Bill Fallon, still probably the best defensive player that I ever coached during my
years at Suffolk University. Bill could change the complexion of a game on the defensive end.
And it’s rare that someone—the only other person I could really think that could do that,
certainly, was Bill Russell in his playing days at University of San Francisco, and then when he
won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics, and then obviously, eleven championships in thirteen
years with the Boston Celtics.

But on the collegiate level, this Bill Fallon was just a marvelous defensive player. And he was
elected to the mayor of Quincy. So the first call letter was, and the first call, was,
“Congratulations on becoming the Mayor.” The next comment was, “How about the baseball
field?” [Laughter] And he said, “Fine.” And we had a wonderful relationship with that. So you
know, utilizing those resources.

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And even after the Ridgeway Building was constructed in 1991, we opened it in February in
1991, we still needed resources for baseball, for soccer, for ice hockey all that. And interestingly
enough, in the opening of the—the Ridgeway Building, we scheduled the first home game
against the University of Massachusetts Boston. And their athletic director and head basketball
coach, a fellow by the name of Charlie Titus, who still remains the Vice-Chancellor for
Athletics. He stopped his coaching about four years ago. But a longtime good friend. I scheduled
them for the game.

And just last week, at the small college basketball hall of fame out in Kansas City, Missouri, I'm
on their selection committee, we selected Charlie Titus to receive the Larry Smith Award. And
we’ll talk about Larry and Michael Smith in a little bit, because of their wonderful influence here
at Suffolk. Larry obviously being a former basketball player. But Charlie was to get the Larry
Smith Award. And he was thrilled to get it.
But let’s go back to February 9th, of 1991. I stacked the deck. I had my college teammate, Bob
Madigan, as one referee, and my longtime good, good, good friend, Jack Cannon, as the other
referee. And Charlie beat us [laughter] in that first game. And I mentioned that when I presented
him for the Larry Smith Award, that all was almost forgiven for their defeating us. But that was a
milestone, obviously, when we opened the Ridgeway Building, because it not only provided us a
home location and practice facility for both the men’s and women’s basketball team, but also for
the volleyball—women’s volleyball program.

But for all of our sports, to have a gathering point, a spot, a location to come down and do their
weight training, and you know, to have some indoor soccer practices, and for conditioning for
the baseball team, not necessarily fielding all that, but—but doing physical condition as well. So
that—that was a huge system to—assistance to us. And we shared that building, when it—when
it first opened, with what was the—the university bookstore was at that location, on the first
floor. Second floor was the athletic offices. And at that time, there were only three full-time
individuals there. The third floor was the dean of students office, Dean Nancy Stoll. And the

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fourth floor, communications and journalism. There were two classrooms up on that location, all
that. So it certainly was a multipurpose facility at that point.

And I have to give the proper credit to, back in 1991, to then President Daniel Perlman, for his
efforts, along with Frank Flannery for that. The Ridgeway Building, and it retains that name, the
Ridgeway Building, we hope someday that there’ll be another generous donor, possibly, you
know, a graduate of our university that will see fit to make a seven figure contribution to the
university. And we’d be happy to name the Ridgeway Building after that person.

But Suffolk, prior to 1991, back in the 19—I want to say ’70-’72, purchased that building, which
was originally a Stop and Shop. And the Stop and Shop had moved across the street, over to
Charles River Plaza. It’s now a Whole Foods, Stop and Shop had it for many years. But Whole
Foods is over there. And we also had offices over in that location, the university did. But for
twenty two years, we had battles with the Beacon Hill Civic Association, as to what type of
building we were going to build on that location.

The initial plan was to build a six-story above-ground building at that location. And the Beacon
Hill Civic Association and the residents on Beacon Hill, there are many that are wonderful
people there. And others that I want to say something else, but I will not on that. They decided
that six stories was—was too large for that. And Dan Perlman came up with the idea, “Well,
we’ll have six stories, but four of them will be above ground, and the remainder will be below
ground.” So that’s why we have what's known as a subterranean gymnasium.

We went down 25 to 30 feet to put in the Ridgeway Gymnasium. And by NCAA bylaws, if a
gymnasium is to meet NCAA standards, it must have a floor-to-ceiling height of a minimum of
25 feet. And that’s exactly what it is, from the floor to 25 feet. A basketball court regulation size
is to be 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. Well, our—our court is 50 feet wide. And the length is
only 90 feet. And the reason for that is down in the far corner, the corner of Hancock and
Cambridge Street, at that time, there were not the fiber optics that we have for telephone lines

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

that we have today. The trunk lines that led from Cambridge Street up to the State House were
all in that location. And if we went out any further to make it the 94 feet distance, it would have
disrupted the telephone lines for communications to the State House. [Laughter] Which isn't a
bad idea. [Laughter] And I still contend that to this day, all that.

But they wouldn’t allow it to go that—that distance. So we had to make it 90 feet, all that. And
now there's the question always comes up is, you know, we’re limited in the seating capacity
there. And obviously we are, because of what was the footprint of the building. But to have our
own building, that was, at that time, was a minor sacrifice as well. And I mentioned having
various offices here at the university. And I started in the Donahue Building for two weeks. Then
moved over for a number of years over in both the front and the back of the—the 56 Temple.
And that was the only building, 56 Temple, that, of those brownstones, that Suffolk ever owned.
Suffolk did sign an agreement with the Beacon Hill Civic Association that they would not
purchase any additional brownstones, and would eventually sell 56 Temple, which they—which
they did.

And, I should mention that, when I moved in—and I shouldn’t say—When I started here back in
’66-’67, those brownstones, you could buy one of the entire buildings, whether it was three
floors or four floors or the basement, for $25,000 dollars, all that. And now they're million dollar
units, all that, as well. You know. Do I wish that Suffolk had purchased—I had purchased one of
those buildings? [Laughter] Of course I do. And I’d sell it to Suffolk today in a heartbeat. But
Suffolk signed that agreement, and you know, for better or worse, you know, that—that’s what
the agreement is.

Now, would it be nice to have those brownstones, many of them, as Suffolk buildings, and have
an alumni office there, or you know, various ones? I think it would be. But when we sold that,
my office moved over to the third or fourth floor, over at Charles River Plaza, the office building
there. And we shared a cubicle with payroll and the president and vice-president’s office, and the
president’s office, and the registrar’s office, you know, were all over there.

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

And as I mentioned payroll, I need to also mention another woman by the name of Alice
DeRosa, who was in charge of the payroll for so many years. Alice passed on at the age of 100 a
couple of years ago. And a wonderfully interesting woman. She, while she was alive, was the last
physical connection to Gleason Archer here at our university, the founder of Suffolk University,
all that. When she—When Alice was here, she worked in his office as a student worker. And in
speaking with her, I found that a privilege to speak to someone who had a physical connection to
the founder of our university.

But when she left the university, she lived on Beacon Hill. And I would see her often all. She
lived on a third floor walk-up, well into her nineties. And she was taking care of her older sister
all that, her older sister Mary. [Laughter] And I would see Alice down at the—what was then the
Stop and Shop, and say, “Alice, let me walk you up Joy Street to your third floor walkup, and
carry your groceries up.” And so I did that a number of times. And at the end—and her sister was
still living here.

And so after years and years, it had to be thirty-plus years, she said, “Say hi to my sister Mary in
the back there.” Her sister hadn't been out of the apartment for decades and decades. And I
walked in, and it was like, you know, it was a Great Expectations, Mrs. Havisham in the back.
Yeah. It was—it was right out of that. [Laughter] And I walked in, and she goes, “Mr. Nelson,
how nice to see you again.” [Laughter] But—But fascinating to meet someone like those two
individuals all that. God rest their souls on there as well.

So my office was over at that location, on that third floor. But then they needed that for another
location. And they moved us over to the plaza, at Charles River Plaza. There's a brand new
facility there that they built. But at that time, my office was between two hair salons, one for men
and one for women. And I’d come home at night, and my wife would say, “What is that smell?”
[Laughter] And you know, it was from the hair salons on there.

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But even more interesting was, there was a movie theater over there called the Charles Cinema.
And we were still practicing and playing over at the Cambridge Y at that time. And I knew,
without looking at a clock, exactly the time that I had to depart to get over to the Y. And it was
one o’clock. And the reason I knew it was one o’clock was because, for two years, the movie
Star Wars was playing. [Laughter] And the theme song would come right through the walls of,
you know, of my office. And I began to hate that theme song after a year and a half, all that. But
one o’clock, it would come on. I’d say, “Oop, time to go to practice.” And I’d head—I’d head
over to the Cambridge Y over there.

So that was an office for a long period of time. And then they decided, thankfully, with President
Perlman, to construct the Ridgeway Building. But prior to that, I moved into the Ridgeway
Building for my office. And I was there for a number of years, in the old Ridgeway Building. It
was just a one story, unattractive building. There was two classrooms in there. During the winter,
some of the homeless would come in and sit in the classrooms in the back to get warm, and sit in
some classes, all that.

Student activities was located there as well, as was some of the fraternities, the notorious TKE
Fraternity, who once brought a—for Halloween, one of the members lived on a farm. And he
brought a big sow down. And he was walking around in the Ridgeway Building. And he got
loose, and they never found him [laughter] all that. But my office in that old Ridgeway Building,
that one story building, was the old meat locker for the Stop and Shop, all that. And it was an
interesting place to work.

And then, when they started construction for the Ridgeway Building, I moved to the second floor
above on Hancock and Cambridge Street. There was a restaurant there. No, let me back up just a
little bit. I moved above what was the 7-Eleven Store on the corner of Ridgeway Lane and
Cambridge Street. And there was a fellow by the name of Alamari. He was a Kuwaiti fellow. He
owned a number of properties. And for some of the old timers who might be listening to this all

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

that, he owned Buzzy’s Roast Beef. Buzzy’s Roast Beef was down outside of the Charles Street
Jail. And there was the huge wall of the Charles Street Jail, and there was a little corner where
Buzzy’s Roast Beef was located.

And Mass General Hospital did a land swap with the—the Charles Street Jail, where the new
Charles Street Jail is located down there on Nashua Street. And Mass General owned that. And
Mass General wanted that property. And they built the Liberty Hotel on that. And Alamari knew
that that was much more valuable as a real estate deal than Buzzy’s Roast Beef. And he held out,
and he got a top dollar for that. And now that’s the entrance where the—as I mentioned, The
Liberty Hotel is, and the Yawkey Center part of Mass General Hospital is located.

But he owned the property down there. And he rented it to us. And it was a little bit of a
nightmare place, had no air conditioning and no heat. [Laughter] The air conditioning wasn’t too
bad, but the heat was a problem all that. And I went to him, and I said, “You know, there's no
heat in this building all that.” And he says, “I know. It’s, you know, too expensive to get the
pipes fixed in the basement.” So I had some friends that were pipefitters and plumbers. And I
said, “Listen. I’ll have someone come in, and I’ll have them fix the pipes. But you're not going to
charge us any rent as long as we’re here.” He says, “Okay.” [Laughter] So there's a deal to be
made in many different ways. So they fixed the heat, and I was there for a while.

And then, once the heat got fixed, he—and we were building the Ridgeway Building, he said,
“I've got someone who could pay me a pretty good amount of money for—for this rental.” And I
said, “Well, where are you going to put me?” And he said, “Well, I own the restaurant,” used to
be the Metro Deli. And then it became Suntuey, and it’s got another name now. And he says,
“I've got an office, you know, right above that. Would you take that?” And I said—and the
UFO—not the UFO—the USO was there. And he chopped that up, and he gave it out. So I
stayed there. And then they opened the Ridgeway Building in 1991. And I had a home.

DEREK BRIAND: So you moved around a lot, from that, as you were bouncing around.

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JIM NELSON: You give me a spot, I’ll move in.

DEREK BRIAND: Yes. And one of the big things is, the students came to you. You seemed to
be a very big figure. Was that hard, moving around, and the students still finding you? Or is that
Suffolk’s sense of community always there, no matter where you were?

JIM NELSON: It was there, you know, as well. But I’ve always felt that, I just was not hired to
be in athletics. You know, I was hired as part of Suffolk University. And—and I was a part of
student services. In my tenure, I had two direct reports, too. And interesting enough, the first one
was the person back in 1960, Brad Sullivan, who was then the dean of admissions interviewed
me. But he became the dean of students. And for my—you know, my first twenty-five years,
here at the university, Brad Sullivan was my direct report. And then Nancy Stoll came, and she
was my direct report.

And being part of the student service division was a real benefit because it allowed us to interact
with the other components of student services as well. You know, the student affairs office,
health services, the—the chaplain at our university, their office as well. Career services was great
to let us interact to get our student athletes part-time jobs and then full-time jobs afterwards.

And also, I was a member of what was the University Social Committee. And John Cavanagh
from the history department, an interesting interview for anyone. He was the chair of it for a
number of years. And we would have dean’s receptions. And we would invite the law school, the
business school, the arts and science to a social function every year. And then there was one year
where John said—and he may have been on a sabbatical. He said, “Would you take over as the
chair while I'm away, of the—of the social committee?” And I said, “Fine.”

And when he came back, he said, “You did such a great job, why don’t you keep it.” And it was
wonderful, because we had a social function at locations such as the Museum of Fine Arts, down

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

in Quincy Market. We did Fenway Park, which was known as the 600 Club event over there.
And by doing that, I got to meet so many other parts of the university, to become colleagues and
friends throughout the university. And obviously, I found it helpful, in particular, in the
undergraduate division, because I got to know so many of the professors. Not just by name, but
by association, and by friendship, all that.

And that allowed me to, when some of our students weren’t doing as well as they should have
been, you know, to call someone and said, “You know, I've got this student who is in your class.
And they don’t seem to be doing as well as they should. You know, what do they need to do, you
know?” I know what they need to do. They need to go to class. [Laughter] You know, they
need—they need to do their homework around that. And I would say, “I want you to go visit this
professor. I don’t want you to embarrass me, all that. You know, you need to speak to this
professor, and you need to get the work done.”

So having those relationships, I found extraordinarily helpful. And then, I'm not so sure—But Pat
Reeve, you know, our current department chair for history, shared in one of the first meetings of
the faculty of arts and science, which I was a member. I taught—you know, Charlie Law taught a
course called Theory in Practice of Athletics. And when Charlie retired, Dean Ronayne asked if I
would teach that course, all that. And I was now going to be head men’s basketball coach,
obviously athletic director, and other responsibilities. And I wanted to do such a good job, I said,
“I don’t think I want to teach this course, because I want to do justice to the other.”

Well, he had a different opinion. He said, “No, I want you to teach the course.” And I'm—and
I'm glad he was insistent about it, because I taught the class for about forty years. And I enjoyed
it immensely, all that. Not only did it give me the opportunity to teach various subjects in sports,
from you know, basketball to baseball, football, the Olympic Games, all that, it gave me an
opportunity to interact to an even wider audience than student athletes because so many of the
students were, you know, were just regular students. And not that regular’s a bad term. You
know, they weren’t—they weren’t student athletes.

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

So interacting with them I found very interesting. And it gave me a wider range. And it also
helped me in terms of, I expanded it to include the Olympic Games, which is a favorite part of
my life. And I recalled our youngest daughter, my wife and I, we have five children, I would—
the old 16 millimeter films on that, I would—I had many of those films. Then I did 8-track, and
then I did DVDs. But I had these 16 millimeter films. And I put on the various Olympic Games
and watched them. And I had my children watching them.

And I recall our daughter Erin saying to one of her classmates, when she was in elementary
school, she was talking about something that she saw on the film, the Olympic Games. And the
student said, “What are the Olympic Games?” And she came home and said to my—my wife,
her mother, she said, “I thought every kid watched the Olympic Games.” [Laughter] And on two
occasions, I had the chance to go to two Olympic Games. I went in 2004 to the Athens Olympic
Games. And that was a homecoming for me. And the reason I say that it was a homecoming for
me, because back in 1972, I took a leave of absence to go professional—to play professional
basketball in Athens, Greece. And at that time, my wife and I, we had three young children. I
had—we had a four year old, a two year old, and a six month old baby. And my wife, when I
said, “How would you like to go to Athens?” And she thought we were going for a two-week
vacation. [Laughter] And we stayed six months.

Now, it was easy for me. But it was a little more difficult for her, with a four year old, a two year
old, and a six month old baby, all that. And it was a great experience. And when I—when I did
go back to the Athens Olympics in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet my former teammates and
their grown children. And that was a great experience. And I continued to stay in touch with
them. I've been back to Athens and to Greece five times. And I've had the opportunity, when you
talk about the Olympic Games, there were four—a lot of people know, you know, Olympia. But
there were also games at Delphi. There were games at Nemea, and there were games at Corinth,
Olympic Games, all that. I visited all four of those sites.

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

And, as a lifetime Roman Catholic, going to mass, it even more resonates with me when you say,
you know, “Saint Paul to the Corinthians,” all that. We went to Corinth, you know. We stood on
those grounds. You know, “Saint Paul to the Thessalonikians,” Thessalonica is the second largest
city in—in Greece on that. But going to the locations, where, you know, they actually preached
on that, was a great experience.

And then, in 2008, I went for a month to Beijing for those Olympic Games. And, you know, I
was fortunate that I had a friend there, who has a business there. And I'm glad I reconnected with
him, because you know, if I did not, you know, Athens obviously I was familiar with. I grew
up—I shouldn’t say I grew up—I lived there for—for six months, and I knew my way around.
And I've been there, you know, four—four times prior. But Beijing was a whole different
ballgame. You know, the language issue, the signage, all that. But this friend of mine, who has a
company, his name is Tom McCarthy, a company called BIG – what a wonderful acronym—
Beijing International Group.

When I got off that plane, there was someone there standing with a sign saying, “Welcome, Jim
Nelson.” [Laughter] And he gave me his chauffeur and his translator for a month. And I traveled
all around Beijing. I had my own apartment, all that. Went just about to an Olympic Game every
night. I went to Shi Huang, which is where the terracotta warriors are, one of the—probably the
eighth wonder of the world. And an interesting story about that.

Bob Ryan, who was a Boston Globe sportswriter, and longtime good friend, he was at Boston
College when I was there. So we've remained friends. He was covering the Beijing Olympics.
And when I called him over there, I said, “How are things going for you?” He says—He says, “I
hate it here.” I says, “Why?” He says, “No one speaks English, and I can't find my way. The taxi
drivers can't take me to the restaurant I want.” I said—I said, “Meet me on Wafu Xing Street
tomorrow at noon. And we’re going to introduce you to Beijing.” And, you know, Mr. McCarthy
and I took him to a great restaurant, the Peking Duck, and took him to have—what's that called,
that hot pot thing, all that. So he had a—he had a great time.

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

And then I said to him, “I'm going to be out of town for four days. I'm going up to Shi Huang to
see the terracotta warriors.” And he said, “Okay.” And then, when I came back, he said, “Jim, I
have to apologize to you.” He says, “I called my wife that night,” who she didn’t come over, his
wife Elaine, and he said, “Jim’s going off to see the terracotta warriors.” He goes, “What's that?”
And she says, “Bob, if I was going to China, that would be the only reason I would go to China,
to see the terracotta warriors, all that.” So he’s coming, and he’s had the chance to speak in my
class many times. And I always remind him of his faux pas as far as that’s concerned. So that,
you know, that was a wonderful experience.

And the dean, Dean Ronayne, who convinced me to take the position, he would have an opening
faculty meeting every year. And one year, it was the year that our former President David
Sargent, who’s the building that we’re in right now, Sargent Hall is named after, had fallen in his
office and broken both his shoulders. And he was down in Mass General Hospital. So I went
down to visit him, and you know, he had an intolerance to pain relievers. So he couldn’t really
take pain relievers.

And an opening faculty meeting, the next day, Dean Ronayne mentioned that, about President
Sargent not being able to sleep. So at the end of the meeting, Dean Ronayne said, “Do you have
any questions?” And so—and I raised my hand. I said, “Yes.” I said, “I understand that poor
David Sargent, our president, can't sleep. You know, he’s got insomnia on that.” I said, “I've got
a perfect way to get him to sleep.” And he goes, “How is that?” I said, “Invite him to one of
these meetings.” [Laughter] And Dean Ronayne said, “See me in my office.” [Laughter]

So I went to his office, and he says, “That was a great line.” [Laughter] And from then on, the
next year, I would give Dean Ronayne a gag gift every year to start off the—the year. And he
liked them so much he said, before even—“What have you got for me this year as well, all that?”

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

DEREK BRIAND: I just have a question. The students, the other faculty, they call you Coach.
What does that mean to you, that you have that kind of persona around campus, even to this day?

JIM NELSON: Well, I'm honored by it. It also means you don’t have to know my name.
[Laughter] So that works, works well in that regard. But obviously, I'm honored of the fact. I
consider it a respectful term that, you know, a coach is a teacher. You know, a coach is a mentor.
A coach is a lifelong friend, all that. And you know, obviously, from my very first years here at
Suffolk University those individuals are still my friends. And when I meet the individuals,
former players, they're forever eighteen to twenty two years of age in my eyes. You know,
because that’s when I really knew them the most, all that. And I have to say, now who did you
play with? Because there may be someone that, you know, back in the sixties, or the eighties,
standing there. And I look at them, I think, you know, “Did these two play, you know, play with
each other?”

So, you know, for me, the coach kind of brings it all—all together, that, you know, they're
forever not—you know, my players, in some regard, extension, they're my children as well.

JAMES USOVICZ: You’ve been associated with Suffolk for, you said, fifty-two years now.
And that’s a life’s commitment. And we’re wondering, what made you stay at Suffolk?

JIM NELSON: Well, like any young coach that first comes in, you know, in Division III, or as
an assistant coach, you always look at, “I'm going to be a Division I coach someday, all that. I'm
going to be in the bigs.” But as I—as Suffolk grew, I grew with it. I’ll always certainly be
indebted to Suffolk, both personally and professionally. It was a good fit for me. It helped me to
grow. It helped me to grow professionally. You know, I've been involved with the NCAA in
various capacities with the ECAC, the Eastern College Athletic Conference. I continue to be a
member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches when they first started their Congress
thirty-three years ago. I was the national chairman of Division III for a number of years.

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

And each of those steps—steps was an incremental one. And then I met a lot of great people
here. I also, three of our five children hold degrees from this university. And that means a lot to
me. Our youngest son also spent his junior semester over in our Madrid campus. And my wife
and I, and my wife’s sister went over in June of that year, when he was over there, and we spent
a month traveling after he finished up his classes, backpacking through Spain, France, and Italy.
And we still have wonderful memories.

Backpacking is going from the hotel to the train station to the next hotel, all that. [Laughter] It’s
not sleeping in a tent. But you know, all of those things, as you combine them, each year, you
know. There were several occasions where people approached me about another position, at
another school. And I respectfully declined. And you know, I've had, since I retired, two
institutions approach me about being their athletic director. And another institution approached
me about teaching at their—their school. And I said, “I'm flattered that you’ve thought of me.
But my identity is Suffolk University. And I wish to keep it that way on that.”

DEREK BRIAND: I have just one final one. When you're looking back at all of the things that
you’ve accomplished here at Suffolk, growing the athletic department and such—excuse me—
where do you hang your hat? Where is that? Where do you look to?

JIM NELSON: Well, in relation to that, I oftentimes—and the question is essentially the
same—is there one moment that stands out more than any other? And there is. And it involves
one individual, a hockey player for us, by the name of John Gilpatrick. John was a sophomore
here at Suffolk. And on January 25th of 1996, over at Boston University, we were playing a
hockey game against Stonehill College. And John, who started here as a freshman, as a
goaltender, and because our numbers were thin on the ice, he told the coach, “Coach, I’ll play
center for us and put another person in there.”


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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

And in that game, as he was coming back on defense, a Stonehill player ran into him, in front of
the goal, and John’s head snapped back and hit the crossbar. And he fell down. Now this is the
same rink that, two months before, Travis Roy of Boston University was paralyzed in his very
first game, after playing eleven seconds. And there's a wonderful book called 11 Seconds about
Travis Roy. And he’s come and spoken here at the university. But John went back, and he went

But it’s a play that you might see, you know, five-six times during a game. And I said, “He’s
going to get up, and he’s going to get up. I know he’s going to get up.” And he didn’t. And the
athletic trainer came, and then the paramedics came. And they immobilized him. And they
brought him to the same location that Travis Roy went to, to the Boston Medical Center, now the
BU Medical Center.

And he was paralyzed. He was sent down to the Shepherd Spinal Center down in Atlanta,
Georgia, a world-famous facility. I had the chance to go down and visit him on his birthday. But
they said, you know, he’s not going to be able to move. He was a quadriplegic. And the NCAA
was wonderful. They have what's called—and all universities have this, and need to have it—a
catastrophic insurance policy. They built an addition onto his house. They bought a van for him,
a wheelchair, and a guide dog. Interestingly enough, his guide dog, his assist dog was called Ice,
you know.

And then, thanks to so many people, David Sargent being one of them, John came back after two
years to Suffolk in his wheelchair. They offered him a spot in our residence halls. But they
thought he’d be better off coming home. God bless his mother and father, wonderful people. His
father retired as a police officer, so he could be his full-time attendant. And it was a thrill to push
myself and push John’s wheelchair across the stage when he got his undergraduate degree.

And then he went to—He enrolled in our law school. And while he was in law school, as he was
showering, and his dad was helping him to shower, he said to his dad, “I feel a little twitch in my

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Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

shoulder.” And he could just flex it a little bit. And over a period of time, you know, he had a
little bit more movement, all that. But his mom called me, I had been away on vacation, and she
said, “John wants to see you.” And I said, “Great. I haven't seen him for a while.” And she says,
“We’ll come by your office.”

And my office at the Ridgeway [Building], my desk sits looking out the window, give me time,
something to do. And I heard—there was a knock on the door. And I turned around, and there—
there was John standing. And it’s as emotional to me now as it was then. We walked into each
other’s arms. And he began to—we had a press conference here at—at Suffolk, with all the
media. And he began to get a little back, each bit.

And he wound up, a couple of years later, walking across the stage to get his law degree. And
today, he’s an attorney down in the Brockton District Court, married, with a beautiful—Natalie
must be ten now—that daughter. And you know, for me, that’s the defining moment of my time
here. [Nelson tears up]

DEREK BRIAND: Coach, thank you very much for sharing.

PROFESSOR REEVE: That’s an amazing story.

DEREK BRIAND: That’s a wonderful story. That answers my questions that we have for you
today. So thank you for joining us. And thank you for sharing.

JIM NELSON: I enjoyed it immensely.

DEREK BRIAND: And it has been a pleasure and a treat. Thank you very much.

JIM NELSON: Thank you. And I wish you both well in your future careers as well. And that
you’ll have a place that you can work for forty-seven years. [Laughter]

73 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02108 | 617.305.6277 |


Oral History Interview of James Nelson (SOH-047)

DEREK BRIAND: I sure hope so.

PROFESSOR REEVE: I've only been at the University for twelve years. But in that time, I've
had at least three advisees who were history majors, who would not have loved this place, had it
not been for their relationships with you feeling that it mattered to you what happened to them.
And they stayed.

JIM NELSON: Thank you.

PROFESSOR REEVE: I think you—and I have to assume that I can multiply that against every
department in the university. So you know, I'm sure you have some sense of the difference you
made in students’ lives. But you may well not know how many other lives you’ve touched.

JIM NELSON: Thank you for saying that.

PROFESSOR REEVE: I've never gotten the chance to tell you that.

JIM NELSON: Well, I appreciate it.


73 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02108 | 617.305.6277 |