The blond tomboy who broke one arm falling from a jungle gym at age 6, and the other after tumbling from a willow tree at 9, grew up to marry a man who read the entire Nancy Drew detective series as a teenager.
He is Robert S. Nelsen, Sacramento State's new president. He's also a writer, a romantic, a sentimental man who gets teary-eyed when he talks about how much students and their success mean to him. She is Jody Nelsen, a practical-minded woman with an infectious laugh, a master's degree in business administration, and a passion for helping people in need.
But that's not to say she isn't a romantic, too. She once bought an elephant plush toy because it reminded her of their first date, when Robert took her to see Disney's 1941 Dumbo at a drive-in. And she still has the plastic “engagement” ring he got from a gumball machine on their second date. He actually proposed that night with the toy ring. She laughed and said, “No.” They married seven months later, on Valentine's Day 1975.
After more than 40 years together, the Nelsens are proof positive that opposites can indeed fall in love and live happily ever after, no matter what.
“We've always been very devoted to each other and try to make each other happy,” Jody says. “Even when we're angry, we still hold hands. Every marriage has its ups and downs, but it's been a good ride. With the death of our son, sometimes that tears a marriage apart. It was a hard time. We dealt with it very differently, but it brought us together even more. We clung to each other.”
Jody Nelsen became Sac State's first lady on July 1, 2015, when her husband took the reins as the eighth permanent president of California's capital university. He previously served as president of the University of Texas-Pan American.
Jody spent much of her first Sacramento summer overseeing the sale of the couple's south Texas residence and getting their belongings and two cats moved here. Now settled in their new home near campus, she and her husband regularly host dinner parties for alumni-donors, and she is contemplating her role in her new community.
While in Texas, she served as board president for the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley and was on the advisory board for UTPA's student food pantry.
“I think hunger will always be one of my causes,” she says.
Jody grew up in the “wilds” of Ann Arbor, Mich. The family home was one of three houses along a country road near a forest.
“We were always running in the woods, climbing trees,” she recalls. “One family had a cowbell, and ours had a slide whistle, so you'd know which kids in the neighborhood were being called home. I loved growing up in Ann Arbor. I had the perfect childhood.”
Her parents, Nelma and Carl S. Hawkins, named her Joellyn, but she was always “Jo” to her dad and “Jody” to the rest of the family. She has a twin brother, a sister and two other brothers.
Their father taught at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor from 1957 to 1973. In the early 1950s, Carl Hawkins was a law clerk for U.S. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. In 1973, after Jody and her twin brother graduated from high school, Hawkins moved the family to Utah, where he was a founding professor of the new law school at his alma mater, Brigham Young University.
Later, as the dean of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School, he would encounter an angry student-janitor named Robert S. Nelsen.
One day during Jody's sophomore year at BYU, her sister asked her to come to the western wear store in Orem, Utah, where she worked. Little did Jody know that Carla's boss (and BYU student) Robert S. Nelsen, who went by “Steve” at the time, had conspired to meet her.
“My sister called, and my mom went with me,” Jody says. “The clothing was on one level, and sporting goods was upstairs and open to the lower level. My sister gets on the intercom: ‘Steve Nelsen to the front desk.’ I notice people lining up on the balcony of the sporting goods department. The whole store knows. And I'm thinking, ‘What's going on?’ He comes down and introduces himself and says, ‘Want to go out on a date?’ I was shocked and said, ‘Sure.’ Who is this guy? My sister said he was nice.”
In addition to holding down his retail job, Robert supervised the student janitorial crew that cleaned the BYU law school building. He tells the story: “The law school dean came in every morning at about 5 to write. Our crew started at 4 and went to 8. So one day, he comes in and walks across my freshly waxed floor, and then he does it again. After the fourth time, I go in and say, ‘How many years do I get if I put this putty knife in your back, if you walk across my wax one more time?’
“So when I show up at her house for the second date,” Nelsen says, “we're sitting on the front porch, and I see the nameplate ‘Carl S. Hawkins.’ I'm dating the daughter of the dean I threatened with a putty knife.” Nelsen asked Jody to marry him for real (with a diamond, not a plastic, ring) just three months after they met. The wedding was Feb. 14, 1975. She was 19; he was 23.
“I liked that he was so vibrant and fun and very smart and very loving,” Jody says.
In May, after the semester ended, they took a belated honeymoon to Yellowstone National Park and his family's Montana ranch. She was pregnant with their son, Seth.
They both quit school and moved to Southern California, where Robert managed a western wear store. Jody taught Robert how to swim in their apartment's pool while baby Seth slept.
After a year in California, Jody encouraged her husband to return to school. She put her education on hold and worked as a hospital labor-and-delivery technician while he finished up his bachelor's and master's degrees at BYU. They moved to Chicago when Seth was 3, so Robert could attend the University of Chicago's John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought for his doctorate.
Meanwhile, Jody worked as a unit secretary in obstetrics at an osteopathic hospital and then as an office manager at the American Bar Foundation, where one of her mentors pushed her to return to school. Jody was 28 and Seth was 8 when she enrolled at Loyola University. There, she earned her bachelor's degree in business administration, graduating summa cum laude.
The Nelsens moved in 1990 to Dallas, where Robert was a professor of literary and aesthetic studies, founded the creative writing program, and served as vice provost at the University of Texas-Dallas. Jody worked as a manager in the university's physical plant while she continued her education. She received her MBA from UT-Dallas in 1997, then became the university's associate vice president for Business Affairs.
In 2008, she was hired as the executive vice president for finance and administration at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Her husband followed her to the Gulf Coast, where he was a professor of English and associate vice president for Academic Affairs. A year later, he was named president of the University of Texas-Pan American.
“We were 2½ hours apart,” Jody says. “I would leave work at 2 on Fridays and get home for events in Edinburg over the weekend, and leave Sunday to go back to Corpus Christi. I felt like I was living in two worlds and wasn't doing a good job of either. I was so torn. I finally told my president, ‘I think I need to leave.’ He said, ‘I understand. I need my wife with me. He needs you with him.’ ”
Jody moved to Edinburg and, for three semesters, taught a business consulting class within UTPA's College of Business Administration. The class was limited to 15 juniors and seniors who carried a GPA of 3.0 or better. She divided them into teams and paired each with a local nonprofit that needed help.
“It was a lot of work, with all of the meetings outside of the classroom, but I really enjoyed it,” she says. “The students energized me.”
In addition to her duties as the wife of the university's president, she took a leading role in combating hunger in a three-county, low-income region of South Texas. The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley served 42,000 meals a week through its partner agencies, one of which was UTPA's food pantry that fed 150 students each week.
The Nelsens established the Robert Seth Nelsen Emergency Assistance Endowment at UTPA to cover emergency expenses that might prevent a student from graduating. Because a similar fund exists at Sac State, the Nelsens are considering another project that will benefit students and bear the name of their only child, who was 25 when he took his life in 2001.
“He suffered from depression. He had left temporal lobe epilepsy, which we discovered was the cause of some of his erratic behavior that kicked in when he was about 13. He refused medication,” his mother says. “He was a compassionate kid and fiercely loyal to his friends. He was always the person rescuing people. That's why we decided to do the emergency fund in his name. That's how he lives on.”
As Jody Nelsen settles into her role as Sac State's first lady, she is discovering how much she likes Sacramento.
“I like that it's Northern, and not Southern, California. I love the green, the trees, that it's the capital,” she says. “That this is a really cool city.
“My role in the Sacramento community will evolve. I have to explore a little and figure out what I want to be involved in. I try not to spread myself too thin, because when I do something, I really do it. One or two boards or charities, and my role as the president's spouse, and that'll be it.”
Sacramento State is positioned for a bright future with the approval of its Campus Master Plan, which details the physical improvements to be made over the next 20 years; and the Strategic Plan, which shapes the University’s mission, vision, values, and strategic direction through 2020.