(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
He had visited family in Salisbury before, but when a teenager from Cincinnati arrived in Chapel Hill in the fall of 1963 he didn’t know a soul at the University. From the moment he walked onto the Carolina campus, however, he felt it was his home. He recalls an instant connection, and Nelson Schwab ’67, has felt that way about North Carolina and the University ever since.”
Both are so much the better for it. Through his business enterprises and his wide-ranging community service in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, Nelson has shown himself to be generous with his time, his expertise and his resources. And through his service to UNC-on the Board of Visitors for both the University and the Kenan-Flagler Business School, on the Carolina First Steering Committee and on the Board of Trustees, which he now chairs-Nelson has helped nurture a world-class university that will serve our state’s students and its economy well in the future.
“As a leader, he shows great humility,” says longtime friend Pepper Dowd ’53, who as past president of the GAA, past vice chair of the Board of Trustees, and a founder of the Arts and Sciences Foundation is no stranger to service herself. “He’s very fair, he’s non-judgmental, he listens very carefully, he’s selfless and gives others the credit. He wants others to succeed. He has a quiet kind of leadership, but he can also be firm. He’s very perceptive. He makes time for people, especially young people seeking advice, and he’s always ready to help those who need help.”
Nelson led two theme park companies, first Kings Entertainment and then Paramount Parks. A little more than 10 years ago, he co-founded the Charlotte-based merchant banking firm Carousel Capital with a classmate named Erskine Bowles ’67.
“Nelson is the best human being I’ve ever known by far,” Erskine says. “He’s the only person who puts you first in every relationship. He’s remarkable in that regard.” The two had just started Carousel when Erskine was asked to become White House chief of staff. Nelson never hesitated: Go, he said-it’s good for the country.
Bill Harrison ’66, former CEO and chair of J.P. Morgan Chase, has been a friend of Nelson’s for 45 years, since they met at Gimghoul Castle back in the early 60s. “Everything he does, he does with a high degree of competence,” Bill says. “I see that same skill set applied to his University duties. He always looks to add value.”
That competence and positive approach, friends say, comes across in all of Nelson’s activities, whether it’s serving on the board of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte; helping bring the Final Four to the Queen City; devoting himself to the University he loves; restoring a historic home with his wife, Jane; trout fishing in Wyoming; or maintaining strong bonds with his four children-two of whom are Carolina alumni, with another due to graduate next year.
“He’s just a force for good,” says Jim Hynes ’62, who served with Nelson on the Board of Trustees and preceded him as chair of both the Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Partnership. “And he has the best voice since Ronald Reagan-that wonderful, raspy voice. He’s thoughtful, he listens, he’s a team-builder.”
“I don’t know how many trustee heads at UNC have ever been from out of state,” says Bill Harrison. “He may be the first one. It speaks very highly of him to be able to do that and have the support of people.”
Nelson is giving back leadership to a University that gave to him-gave not only the opportunity to learn and to grow but gave a connection to people who became friends for life.
Looking back and looking at works in progress, Erskine Bowles sees in his partner a thoroughly involved and devoted public servant. “Look at the things he’s done to give back to the Charlotte community. Look what happened on the capital campaign during his leadership. Look at what he’s done to spur on Carolina North. He is a fabulous leader, and he cares deeply about Chapel Hill.”