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$100 million gift: Who were David and Rita Nelson?

There were some jaws figuratively bouncing off the ground at the Grignon Mansion in Kaukauna Tuesday when the Community Foundation announced it had received an estate gift of more than $100 million to create a donor advised fund that will benefit causes important to the late David and Rita Nelson and their family, primarily in the Fox Cities and Green Bay areas.

The David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund is expected to grant $4.5 million a year, forever, when it reaches its full grantmaking ability in 2021 under Community Foundation’s endowment grant distribution formula.

Who were the Nelsons and how did they accumulate that much wealth?

David Nelson managed the finances for the companies that published the Appleton Post-Crescent and Green Bay Press Gazette. Later he invested in radio stations and other businesses. David enjoyed working with the radio stations, friends said. He told people he was in show business.

Rita became a teacher after raising the couple’s three sons, returning to college and earning a teaching degree at age 50.

The couple lived in De Pere, Wis. David (see bio) was born in Kaukauna, Wis., and Rita (see bio) in Janesville, Wis. 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.

The couple’s youngest son, Richard, said his father was “a large personality.” His boating friends called him “The Admiral.”

Rita volunteered with several charities and translated text books into Braille for students with sight problems. But for a man who left such a considerable sum to charity, David Nelson was not particularly involved in philanthropy, his son said. As a former IRS investigator, be understood the tax implications of leaving that much money at death.

David and Rita loved to travel, son Richard said, but they never went first class.

“They were very frugal,” Richard said. “Growing up, I never thought of my family as rich.” They had no air conditioning in their De Pere home and sent their sons off to school each fall with two pairs of pants from Sears.

According to David’s brother, Hugh, a retired Calumet County judge, their wealth is as much about saving money as earning it. He said that even as a child his brother would save 90 cents out of every dollar he earned.

David was the kind of guy who would buy a dilapidated yacht, spend years restoring it and then give it to a museum. He loved history and all things related to water, M. Keith Jones, his partner in several radio stations, said. David was a man who wasn’t afraid to take charge. Jones told of a special wooden briefcase Nelson called his “deal case.” When he toted that case into a meeting, you knew serious negotiations were about to happen. Jones now owns that briefcase.

How did they get so wealthy?

“Mom and dad were great stewards of their money,” Richard said, “saving and investing wisely.”

His dad’s investment rules were don’t buy something you don’t understand, invest in quality companies and hold the stock for the long term. The results of his investment success will improve life in the Fox Cites and Green Bay areas far into the future.

“I’m so proud of my parents,” Richard said.

Read more about the gift and the first $3.5 million in grants awarded from the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund at Listen to our President and CEO Curt Detjen talk about this gift with WHBY’s Fresh Take host Josh Dukelow in this podcast (starting at 25:19) and view the media coverage.

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