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‘Use yourself up’

Granite Falls man has found his purpose -- helping others find theirs

By Scott Thoma

When Bill Nelson of Granite Falls makes a point about a certain topic, his explanations are compelling and concise.

“I was a school teacher,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Bill Nelson of Granite Falls is physically fit at age 78 and is now promoting health and fitness to seniors, as well as helping seniors find their purpose in retirement. Photo by Scott Thoma

Nelson’s topic of interest in his retirement years often centers around staying young and relevant while growing old. It’s easy to take someone serious about that subject when they when they are physically fit at age 78, like Nelson is, while also appearing 20 years younger than that.

“I want to teach others to find value and purpose in life,” he said with conviction in his voice. “This is where I’ve found my purpose.”

Nelson is a former longtime teacher and coach in several Minnesota school districts, as well as in Texas and Kentucky.

He was born in Granite Falls and his family moved away when he was in third grade. He has resided in many towns and states over the years, but eventually returned to his roots three years ago.

“I wanted to come back to the small town life, so I chose Granite Falls” he said. “Minnesota really is the best place to live.”

And living each day with a purpose is what Nelson is stressing to the elderly. He has been working with Heather Radke through the Marshall YMCA to give talks to senior citizens throughout the area.

“I’m not in this for the money,” he said. “I want to help people. I want people to feel useful, so one of my little sayings is ‘Use yourself up.’ You were given these talents so use them. That’s my goal in life now. When you retire, it doesn’t mean you’re done.”

Nelson has solid credentials that enable him to promote health and wellness to individuals, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences while also majoring in Health. He also earned his Masters Degree in Education from Bowling Green State University.

He has taught Science in a middle school in Texas, and for nearly 30 years was Health and Physical Education instructor and track coach in Faribault. He was named Track Coach of the Year four times while leading a strong track program in Faribault.

Nelson also been a coach in football, basketball and wrestling during his high school and college career. He was a standout athlete himself in both high school and college, having earned All-State honors in football while playing for Hutchinson High School, as well as being a stellar track athlete.

Nelson took a brief leave of absence while he was at Faribault and started developing wellness programs in the state, including for the police, fire and emergency personnel in Burnsville.

“Soon after, the city of Burnsville was using my program and then many places in Dakota County, too,” Nelson said.

In the middle 70s, he went to work for the Northfield Hospital Wellness Program.

While attending a high school basketball game in Northfield in the 70s, Nelson noticed how so many people would head to the lobby and smoke at halftime.

“A lot of people smoked back then and the smoke would fill the gymnasium,” he said. “That wasn’t healthy for the kids to play in. So the Human Resources Director of the high school and I wrote a smoke-free policy and presented it to the Board of Education and they agreed with it.”

Nelson eventually returned to Faribault to continue his teaching and coaching career. He retired from teaching in 1999.

“One of the reasons I decided to retire was because my wife had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 1999,” Nelson said. “She passed away in 2001.”

Nelson’s first wife died from cancer about 20 years before that.

“I suppose sub-consciously their deaths have something to do with me promoting health and wellness,” Nelson said. “But I have always wanted to help others. That’s always been important to me.”

Bill Nelson has been teaching others to find value and purpose in life as they grow older. Contributed photo

After his wife died in 2001, Nelson moved to Texas where he first began his teaching career, He taught there for one year before heading back to Minnesota and coached track at Bloomington Jefferson and football at Minnehaha Academy for two years. He lived in Bloomington until 2018 when he came back home to Granite Falls.

Over the past three years, he has stayed busy educating seniors on how to live, being involved in the Bert Raney Elementary School’s Grandparent Foster Program in Granite Falls, working with the Marshall YMCA and teaching a class called “Staying Young and Relevant While Growing Old” via Zoom at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

“I try to be research-oriented,” he said. “I don’t promote things that are not scientifically proven. I research a lot of things from Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic. I have contact with them and what they do in their research labs.”

Nelson stresses two basic concepts in his talks; well-being and wellness.

“There is a difference between the two,” he noted. “Well-being is broken down into three parts; how you are feeling physically and emotionally, how you are functioning as far as feeling useful and a part of the community and what the future looks like for you.

“Wellness is what you do and the behaviors you develop. It’s about eating healthy and exercising. I call it ‘Eat less, move more’. It’s about finding that purpose and value in life.”

This fall, Nelson will be giving a presentation through his work with Lutheran Social Services entitled “Bouncing Back from the Pandemic.”

“I attended some workshops via Zoom and learned some things we can do to recover,” Nelson told. “I will ask people what they are doing to bounce back from the pandemic. If they were blank, I will tell them to write down every day three things that went well for you.

“Feeling a certain level of worthiness, capability and purpose can motivate a person to want to live longer. Then he/she finds value in doing the ‘things’ that enhance and extend their lifespan. To a certain extent, we all have the ‘survival instinct’ that is in our genes and our body adapts to stressors by getting tougher. However, being too comfortable all the time weakens our resistance to threats.”

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