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A Local Legend

Marcella Nelson on life, community and making a difference

By Abigail Thorpe

Marcella Nelson is a name much revered and beloved in the Sandpoint community, but her story didn’t start here. Nelson was born in 1928 in Canada to U.S. parents, granting her dual citizenship from birth. Her family came back to the U.S. in 1931, settling in Bonners Ferry and living there until 1934 when the family purchased a large farm in Paradise Valley south of town. The farm became the center of Nelson’s childhood and continues to hold a special place in her heart to this day.

“We had everything and operated it as a farm all the years that I was growing up,” says Nelson. “It is now a tree farm, so I can still go home. It's such a beautiful place.” One of six children, her first career was on the farm, she laughingly recalls. They farmed everything from pigs and cattle to turkeys, ducks and animal feed. All of the local stores’ (including Safeway’s) produce and food at the time was provided by local farmers like her family. “It was much different than it is now,” says Nelson. “It was a wonderful life. I've been so thankful all of my life that I grew up on that farm.”

After school she went to work in Bonners Ferry for the Department of Labor as an interviewer. After three years, she became the manager, and when the office closed in 1963 due to the recession, Nelson transferred to the Sandpoint office as assistant manager. It would mark the beginning of a lifelong record of serving the Sandpoint community.

Nelson retired in 1984 after 37 years of service. It was an early retirement, but her position had been eliminated at the Sandpoint office due to its small size, and she decided to remain in Sandpoint instead of transferring to Coeur d’Alene—a decision that would benefit the local community for years to come.

“I lasted three days and then I was looking at the paper to find a volunteer job,” she laughs. “When you work all of your life it's quite a change to retire. It wasn't a good thing for me.” Nelson saw an ad in the paper for volunteering at the Chamber of Commerce and decided it was a nice change of pace from her previous job and would be a happy place to work. She offered them four hours a week. “I ended up going over there every day, and I had my own space and desk as a volunteer,” she remembers. Four hours had turned into almost full time.

She worked as the membership coordinator and managed events for 20 years before retiring from the chamber. At that time Pend Oreille Community Development reached out to ask for her help, and she worked with them for nine years.

Nelson didn’t stop there. She served on the board of the Panida for 25 years, and currently serves on the Pend Oreille Arts Council board, the Festival at Sandpoint board, and helps out with support and fundraising for multiple other organizations, including the hospital.

Since COVID-19, she’s been stuck at home, unable to go out in the community and serve as she has for so many years, and also forced to forgo her aerobics classes, which she’s done three times a week religiously since she started in 1984—every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “I like to be busy, so this quarantine is tough for me,” says Nelson.

For her the most rewarding thing is being able to help community organizations that fill great needs in the community; organizations like Kinderhaven and many others for which she’s helped raise support and donations. “It's a very unique community because there are so many organizations that other communities don't have that fill the needs here: the cancer services, of course the Festival at Sandpoint is an amazing thing for a small town to carry out.”

Nelson is a charter member of Pend Oreille Rotary and has helped give out countless scholarships to local youth in the community. “Sandpoint has been good to me, it's kind of my family,” she adds. “The interaction with the community organizations and businesses and folks who live here has been a very positive thing for me.”

There are many things Nelson loves about Sandpoint, but its friendliness comes first to mind. You go downtown and you know most of the people you see, she remarks. “It is such a giving community,” she says. “I have been involved in asking for donations of items and of money for so many years, and I am so impressed with the generosity of the businesses in the community.”

Generosity, vision and loads of energy are exactly what come to mind when you think of Marcella Nelson, and for good reason. She’s been the powerhouse behind so many community initiatives and organizations it’s difficult to name them all.

So what does 2000’s Woman of Wisdom want to leave with the generations to follow her? “I would encourage the younger generations to volunteer in their community. It's a benefit to the community, but it's a huge benefit being able to do it, and to give back to the community that we love to live in.”

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