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Nelson Fund grant will complete range light restoration

Of the eight grants awarded from the new David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation, the largest was most clearly something David would have supported.

David Nelson (left) and Merlin Baenen by the range lights

The Community Foundation announced Tuesday that 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. Topping the list of eight grants awarded was $2.62 million for restoration of the Grassy Island Range Lights.

Range lights are like lighthouses. Rather than warning of a point of land to be avoided, a pair of range lights are positioned so that when they line up, someone navigating a ship knows he is on the right line to enter a harbor. The two that are the subject of the grant originally stood on Grassy Island off the mouth of the Fox River. They were built in 1872. When the range lights were supposed to be torn down to make way for the shipping channel to be widened in 1966, the Green Bay Yacht Club successfully petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to have them moved to the break wall in front of their club (photo above courtesy of Chris Rand). They have since been listed on both the state and national registers of historic places.

David contributed to the restoration of the Grassy Island Range Lights both in physical labor — even when he was in his 90s — and financially. A fan of lighthouses and their history, he had previously given $1 million to kick off fundraising for the repairs.

Merlin Baenen

Merlin Baenen, a member of the Green Bay Yacht Club who worked closely with Nelson on the project, said it has come this far with the help of dozens of people helping out at weekly work nights. He said it was difficult to know months in advance that the grant was coming, but not be able to tell any of the other club members. Several of them attended the news conference in matching Grassy Island Range Light sweatshirts.

“This grant that came to us is really something,” Baenen said. “I’ll tell you, it’s really appreciated.”

Supporters of the range lights

The first round of grants, totaling $3.5 million, 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. See the full list of grants.

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

Read more about the grant recipients and the Nelsons at and view the media coverage.

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