There is no doubt that Chipola College is an educational cornerstone of our community and Northwest Florida. Since its founding in 1947, thousands upon thousands of students have attended classes, graduated, and moved on to institutions of higher learning across the country and throughout the world.
Throughout the years, Chipola has been an athletic powerhouse and many people are aware of that. However, not as many have been as familiar with the Fine Arts, their tremendous contribution to our community, and far fewer are aware of the hard work and tireless dedication that went into the development and evolution of our community's current collective appreciation for the arts.
With numerous years of teaching under his belt, Mr. Lawrence Nelson moved to Marianna, Florida in 1960 and assumed his role as an instructor of the arts at Chipola. For a while he was a one man show. He instructed Humanities, voice, band, and directed the theater - the first few years were very busy. At that time, Marianna was a much smaller community and Chipola Junior College did not possess the physical presence and institutional stature that it does today - it was truly in its infancy. Mr. Nelson brought his passion for enriching the minds of his students and his love of the arts together to embark on a wonderful and challenging 27-year tenure at the college. As a veteran of the Korean War (1950-52) and a graduate of Asbury College, Mr. Nelson gave up a major in Medicine to pursue a degree in his true love: the performing arts. Born in Mobile, AL in 1931 in a small house on Dunham Street, Mr. Nelson grew up with three brothers and three sisters. As he remembers there were only two bedrooms and one bathroom so most days the house was pretty active and there were many fights over the bathroom.
In 1963, he married Hazel Burns and in the same year they gave birth to their first son, Richard. Richard attended Chipola Junior College, graduated with the highest honors, received recognition for outstanding achievement in mathematics and physics and moved on to Florida State University where he graduated from the School of Engineering with honors as well. Richard is now a recognized Professional Engineer and still resides within our community.
In 1968 Mr. Larry Nelson assumed the role of Chairman of Fine Arts and began his mission to build the department into a cornerstone of the college. It is important to note that at that time the Fine Arts were not a topic on the minds of very many people in the community. The department's very existence was threatened on several occasions, but Mr Nelson's steadfast dedication, commitment, and vision carried it through these rainy periods time and time again. In the words of his son John Nelson, "my father knew the challenges he faced and the uphill battles to be fought but these things didn't matter. His passion never waned and I think his raw determination got him through the tough times. He never lost sight of what was important as part of the grand scheme of the college".
In 1970, Larry and Hazel gave birth to their second son, John. John attended Chipola as well, and moved on to Troy State University where he earned a Bachelor's of Science in Computer and Information Sciences/Management Information Systems and graduated with honors. John is a software engineer and consultant and resides in our community as well.
Through the years, Mr. Nelson repeatedly brought national and world-renowned celebrities to our small community to participate in theater productions and to perform. These names included Ann B. Davis, Hal Holbrooke, Ken Howard, Carol Channing, Alan Glasman, Tonio di Paolo, and numerous others. As his son John remembers, "my father had a knack for bringing people to Marianna that would not have come otherwise. I remember Ann Davis (the Brady Bunch) taking family pictures with my mom, brother, father, and me in the yard. My childhood was interesting. We had numerous dinners and parties - celebrities, poets, singers, authors, and so on". He also brought the Atlanta and New Orleans Symphonies to Marianna to perform on more than one occasion.
His focus was not just on teaching but on introducing his students and members of the community to all of the great things that the fine and performing arts have to offer. For many years Mr. Nelson conducted Handel's Messiah at the Chipola Health Center during the Christmas season. Thousands of our friends and members of the community attended these performances.
In the 1980s, Mr. Nelson founded the Chipola Regional Symphony Orchestra which provided a wonderful outlet for talented musicians throughout Northwest Florida to show off their skills and provided a great performing arts experience for the citizens of our area for a number of years until his retirement.
Prior to his retirement in 1987, Mr. Nelson worked diligently to secure funding for the Violet McClendon Scholarship fund. As his son John recalls, "I was only a child but I remember Mrs. McClendon and Dr. McClendon (her husband) adored my father. They had a special bond with him and believed in him. Any cause of his was a cause of theirs. It was his passion for the college, the Fine Arts program, and her trust of him as a person of integrity that compelled her to donate such a large amount to start the scholarship fund." His final achievement as Chairman of Fine Arts at Chipola is an accurate summary of his entire career as an educator and as a person passionate in his pursuit. Mr. Nelson summarized education like this: "an educational institution's true success is not measured by physical attributes and buildings but by the degree to which students acquire knowledge and become better able to think for themselves in an objective way. The Fine Arts represent the collective experiences and accomplishments of the human race from the dawn of civilization and throughout history, and because of that we all stand to gain a better understanding of and appreciation for our own existence through them."
Since his retirement from Chipola in 1987, Mr. Nelson has continued to be very active. He has been successful in real estate sales, acted as General Manager of our largest local truckstop for several years, remains active and involved, and to this day serves as choir director at First Presbyterian Church in Marianna. You can find him there any Wednesday night, Sunday morning, or Christmas Eve. He continues to give to the community and it is likely that if you attended Chipola between 1960 and 1987 you know his name or had him as a professor.
Today, in their 80's, Larry and Hazel Nelson lead very productive lives and are still actively involved in the community they have loved since the early 1960s. Their work and respect from their friends and colleagues are tributes to them. Larry Nelson is truly a noteworthy man in many ways. He was a great and passionate professor, musician, and visionary. He was a man ahead of his time in many ways.