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Portrait of Carolyn Nelson, taken by photographer Kyle Martin in 2020.

Women's History Month Feature: Carolyn Nelson


In honor of Women's History Month, Touchmark embarks on a three-year initiative to identify and recognize exceptional female residents who defied the odds in their professional and personal lives to pursue opportunities that were historically off-limits for women. Please allow us to introduce Carolyn Nelson, our first resident feature in this series. The following is her telling of her life's story in her own words.

 Please tell us about your personal and professional background. 

I think of my life in four different stages. There was the time of growing up before World War II. My parents were both educators, so they insisted I go to college before I get married. I met a man in college who was also an educator and we got married, so the second part of my life was getting married and having children.

As soon as my youngest child was in school, I went back to teaching math. I have a master’s degree in Math Education and Music, and so I went back to teaching at North Dakota State University (NDSU) and taught the freshmen and sophomores from 1968 until 2002.

In between, a lot happened. In 1980, my sister was killed, and we raised her children who were 2, 4, and 6 at the time, in addition, of course, to our children. I ran for the school board and won, and then was convinced that I should run for the state legislature and won in a swing district, much to the surprise of my husband.

For the last 32 years, I was in the legislature and teaching. From 2011 to 2015, I was the president of the National Federation of Music Clubs.

It’s been an interesting life and each section seems to overlap the next.

In November of 2018, I didn’t run for reelection and we didn’t have to live in my legislative district anymore, so we moved to Touchmark.

Carolyn serves on the boards of the International Music Camp and Consensus Council, Inc. and was president of the Fargo Board of Education and North Dakota Parent Teacher Association. She is a member of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers; League of Women Voters; American Association of University Women; and First United Methodist Church. She served in the North Dakota House of Representatives 1987 - 1988, 1993 - 1994, and in the North Dakota Senate from 1995 - 2018.

How did you enter into politics?

I was the treasurer of my U.S. senator’s political campaign in the ‘70s, and he called me and said, “You know, it’s not a lot of work, I don’t raise a lot of money, you just have to send in this postcard each quarter; it’ll be easy.” This was before computers, so I did that by hand and then for the next election he ran, we raised about half a million dollars, and it was all on file cards so I asked if I could have a computer; I used my personal computer.

He’s the one who called me in 1986 and said: “Why don’t you consider running in your district.” We didn’t think I would win, but I ended up winning by four votes.

I ran on my education background. I’m a Democrat, and there’s not a whole lot of us in the state of North Dakota.

I’ve been in the minority in I don’t know how many ways: obviously, by being a woman running. There was a large segment of elderly folks who thought I should be at home with my kids and cook for my husband. I informed them he was in the Air Force and perfectly capable of cooking for himself.

In the legislature, there were so few women, and the Democrats were in the minority. I never was in the majority for anything, gender-wise or politically-wise. I enjoyed it and the work. I didn’t really like campaigning; I don’t like to ask people to do things for me. I’d rather they volunteer. I don’t mind asking for money for Alzheimer’s or other people, but for myself, I have trouble asking.

In the district I represented, it was more that they wanted to see you and meet you, so my partners and I covered the district three times, door-to-door knocking, and we never did spend a lot of money. What we did spend was for publications or brochures; we didn’t spend on TV ads. Most of what we did was go door-to-door and encourage people to get out and vote.

What was it like always being in the minority?

Well, you don’t always like it. One gentleman (he’d been the mayor of Bismarck) was a friend and he was of the opposing party. One day, I was having a problem because of something my party was against but it was something my constituents in central Fargo wanted, and he said, “Remember, Carolyn, you were elected by your constituents—not your party.”

That stuck with me because I heard it early in life in the House of Representatives, and I thought that’s right.

I have to have the guts to stand up for the priorities of the people in my district.

I had people—college students and rich doctors—and some people who were living under a bridge, in homeless shelters, and ending up in the streets.

It was an interesting district to represent, but rarely did I have people yelling at me, telling me I was wrong. I tried to do right, and even though I was in the minority, it was nice because some of the people in the majority would come to me and say, “When you talk, we really listen.” I was good on certain issues, so I was the one to carry those issues to the floor.

What advice would you give to women pursuing barrier-breaking careers today?

Times and attitudes of the different generations have changed, and I was probably ahead of my time, but these days, you’ve got to be persistent and have a goal in mind. Don’t doubt yourself. If you think you can do it, go for it! I think you’re seeing more people in the younger generations doing that now.

In my generation, you could be a stay-at-home mother, an elementary school teacher, or a nurse in college, and that was it! But I was a math major, even though that’s not what a woman was supposed to be. Most often, I was in a class with maybe one or two women, but the rest were all male.

My folks would have loved for me to be a home demonstration agent for the extension service, but I wanted to do something that dealt with numbers and people. I did what I loved to do.

I would say to the young people, be persistent. Don’t let anyone stop you if you really think you can do it.

Now that it’s been about two years since you ran for office, what are you doing to recharge now?

Right now, I’m the finance chairman for the National Federation of Music Clubs because once they have you as a president, they just keep you. I’ve been able to completely streamline their financial record-keeping and it’s much easier and cleaner now. It’s a lot of work at the end of each quarter, but I enjoy doing it.

I was considering being an actuary, but my bell ringers group was going to Norway, so I decided to do that instead. I belong to a study club that’s been around since 1894, and I sing in a musical group. It gets me out in the community.

I’m learning to say, “no,” which is the hardest word I’ve ever had to learn.

I found, early on, that the busiest people are the ones you can count on. The people you know who don’t have anything to do will find every excuse in the world to not do something. But the people who are really busy and believe in what you’re doing will find the time to help you with your project. Now I pick and choose what I do.

You’ve been to 49 states, what’s the 50th one still left?

Vermont! I’ve been to New Hampshire, which is so close, but never got to Vermont. A lot of my travel came because I was the president of the National Federation of Music Clubs, and I got to go and visit a lot of places and encourage people to support the arts.

Although I was never a professional musician, I was very interested in helping young people succeed. I thoroughly enjoyed getting people to realize music is an essential part of their being, and it’s used in all sorts of ways. And that kid you’re paying a lot of money for piano lessons for, well, they might not be a professional musician, but they’ll enjoy it later in life, and it won’t matter if they’re a doctor or teacher if they enjoy it.

Outside of your family, what are the accomplishments in your life of which you are most proud?

Being elected president of the National Federation of Music Clubs was a big honor. I had competition, I wasn’t the micro-managing type of president. I would try to get new people involved and put them to work, and I made an awful lot of friends doing that.

At the end of my political term, several of my legislative colleagues nominated me for the Kennedy Center Honors for my support of the arts, and I received the first award given by them in 2017.

Last year, I received the Ethel Percy Andrus Award through the North Dakota Retired Teachers Association.

Carolyn was the inaugural recipient of the “Outstanding Woman State Legislator Supporting the Arts” Award given by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Women in Government in 2017.

Thank you to Carolyn for sharing her story with us. Stay tuned for the final installment of this series for the year 2020.