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David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund

Community Foundation receives $100 million estate gift

Rita and David Nelson in 1986

KAUKAUNA, Wis, (May 1, 2018) — An estate gift of more than $100 million arranged by former media executive David L. Nelson and his wife, Rita, to the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region will generate millions of dollars in grants annually to benefit causes important to the couple and their family, primarily in the Fox Cities and Green Bay­ areas in northeast Wisconsin.

The couple lived in De Pere, Wis. David (see bio) was born in Kaukauna, Wis., and Rita (see bio) in Janesville, Wis., and both lived in Wisconsin nearly their entire lives. He helped manage the companies that published newspapers in Appleton and Green Bay before investing in radio stations and other businesses. She became a teacher after raising the couple’s three sons. They were married for 73 years and died within five months of each other – Rita on Feb. 16, 2017, at age 93 and David on July 18, 2017, at age 96.

“This is the most generous gift ever for our region, and it is a game-changer,” said Curt Detjen, Community Foundation President and CEO. “It will be a catalyst for addressing community needs today, but also for investing in exciting opportunities for future generations.”

At more than $100 million, the gift is among the largest in Wisconsin’s history and large enough to have ranked among the top 20 gifts nationally reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2017. The bequest is by far the largest gift to the Community Foundation in its 32-year history, surpassing an estate gift of $16 million in 2004 from Donald and Violet Himebaugh of Appleton, Wis.

The Nelson gift established the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, a permanent, donor-advised endowment that will award grants to charitable organizations reflecting the charitable interests of David and Rita Nelson and their family.

The Community Foundation will support an advisory committee comprised of people who know the Nelson family to award grants from the fund.

Detjen made the announcement during a news conference on Tuesday, May 1, at the 181-year-old Grignon Mansion, a national and state historic site in Kaukauna, that David’s father fought to preserve when he was Kaukauna’s mayor in the early 1940s.

What will benefit from the fund?

The David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund will benefit the couple’s interests, including:

  • Parks, recreation and waterways
  • Education
  • Health care
  • Community services and community centers;
  • Historic preservation, including lighthouses, museums and historical societies

Other areas of family interest may be considered, as recommended by the fund’s advisory committee.

The first grants, totaling $3.5 million, have been awarded from the fund and were approved by the advisory committee and the Community Foundation. Eight grant recipients were announced during the news conference.  Additional grants will be awarded annually beginning in the summer of 2019, and will be determined by the fund’s advisory committee working closely with the Community Foundation staff. There will be no application process.

Detjen said the $100 million-plus fund is expected to award $4.5 million in grants per year by 2021, based on the Foundation’s endowment formula that up to 4.5 percent of a fund’s balance be distributed as grants each year to assure the fund’s giving capacity and permanence.

“This gift to the Community Foundation provides us and our area with a tremendous opportunity that we enthusiastically embrace,” Detjen said. “We are humbled and incredibly grateful for the trust that the Nelsons have placed with us to ensure that the family’s legacy will be part of creating the exciting chapters ahead for this region.”

“This is a breathtaking gift the Nelsons have given to help shape the future of the community,” said Community First Credit Union President Catherine Tierney, who chairs the Community Foundation Board of Directors.

Who were David and Rita Nelson?

David and Rita Nelson family

Younger son Richard Nelson described his father as “very much a large personality.” Known to his boating buddies as “the Admiral,” he was generous with his friends, Richard said, but kept his charitable interests largely to himself. History and boating were clearly passions for him.

Thomas Nelson said his parents didn’t live extravagantly. His father never flew first-class, didn’t wear designer clothes and stayed at Super 8 motels. He said they were always known to have a lot of money, but acquaintances “will be shocked by the amount of money.”

Charity was never a big topic of conversation when he was growing up. However, his mother volunteered for years translating reading materials into Braille and working at St. Vincent Hospital and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. After raising the three boys, Rita returned to school at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, graduating with a teaching degree in 1974. She taught for 18 years in the De Pere School District.

Thomas said his father’s main pleasure was “Davey’s Locker,” a 41-foot, custom-made cabin cruiser. “That was his big escape. He went to Door County nearly every weekend.”

Tough but fair in business

David Nelson was described as a tough, honest businessman.

“He was firm but fair. If you did your job, you didn’t have any problem with Dave,” said M. Keith Jones of Chippewa Falls, Wis., his business partner in 10 radio stations. “He was a guy who would take charge.”

Jones said the initial list of grants would please his old partner because he liked anything involving history or the water.

David’s brother, retired Calumet County Judge Hugh Nelson, said even he didn’t know the extent of his brother’s wealth, though he always was attentive to saving.

“Even as a kid, if he got a dollar, he’d save 90 cents of it,” Hugh Nelson said. “He was strictly honest. I don’t think he ever kept a dime that he didn’t earn. There was no flimflamming.”

Why the Community Foundation?

The Nelsons connected with the Appleton-based Community Foundation through one of their advisors, attorney Derek N. McDermott of Burnett, McDermott, Jahn, King & DesRochers, LLP, in Chilton, Wis. McDermott said he has a high level of trust in this Community Foundation based on experience with the staff and having served three years on its volunteer Board of Directors.

McDermott said David Nelson had the intention to leave money to charity and was particularly interested when McDermott explained how creating a donor-advised fund within a community foundation provides the opportunity for creating a lasting legacy.

Grants making a difference

2020: Community Foundation Announces nearly $2.4 Million in Grants

2019: Community Foundation Announces $3.8 Million in Grants

Initial 2018 grants from the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund

Grassy Island Range Lights

Grassy Island Range Lights: Stabilization of two historic lighthouses near the Green Bay, WI, Municipal Boat Landing known as the Grassy Island Range Lights, a project David supported financially and with volunteer labor. $2.62 million

Little Chute-Kaukauna Boardwalk: A challenge grant to raise the local share of a pedestrian/bicycle boardwalk across the Fox River from the combined lock below Heesakker Park in Little Chute, WI, to a trail along a former railroad bed in Kaukauna, WI. David grew up in Kaukauna.$650,000

Grignon Mansion

Grignon Mansion: Reconstruction of the summer kitchen and signage at the a 181-year-old national and state historic site in Kaukauna, WI, which David’s father fought to preserve when he was mayor of Kaukauna in the early 1940s. $50,000

Friends of High Cliff State Park: Restoration of the upper park pavilion at the state park in Sherwood, WI, a favorite of the Nelson family’s, and support a summer naturalist position. $50,000

Divine Savior Holy Angels High School: An endowed fund for tuition assistance at the all-girls Catholic school in Milwaukee, WI. Rita attended Holy Angels Academy prior to its merger with Divine Savior in 1970. $30,000

Kaukauna High School: An endowed scholarship at David’s alma mater in Kaukauna. $30,000

St. Vincent de Paul Society: Support for the nonprofit in Green Bay, WI, where Rita Nelson volunteered. $25,000

St. Norbert College Parish: Construction of a prayer/reflection garden at Old St. Joseph Church on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI, a parish of special significance to Rita. $15,000

The Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, an Appleton, Wis.-based nonprofit founded in 1986, helps people provide long-term support for favorite charities through endowments and other charitable funds. The second-largest community foundation in Wisconsin, its donors have allowed it to award more than $267 million in grants to nonprofit organizations from more than 1,500 charitable funds. The Community Foundation is certified as meeting National Standards for U.S. Community Foundations by the Council on Foundations. This accreditation demonstrates commitment to accountability and excellence to its donors, its community, policymakers and the public. Affiliated regional families of funds operate in Brillion, Chilton, Clintonville, Shawano and Waupaca areas of Wisconsin. To learn more, go to, subscribe to The Loop at or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.