Longtime JSK Fellowships “Mom” Corrine Nelson dies at 97

Corrine Nelson, godmother to hundreds of John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellows and their families while at Stanford, died Sept. 29 at her home in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She was 97 years old.

One of her lasting legacies is the JSK Fellowships’ Lyle and Corrine Nelson International Journalism Fellowship fund that sponsors one international journalist to come to Stanford and participate in the JSK Fellowships each year. The JSK Fellowships annually hosts up to 20 journalists and journalism innovators from around the world who are deeply engaged in exploring solutions to the most urgent issues facing journalism.

It was initially named the Lyle Nelson International Fellowship when it was established in 1993 to honor her husband, Lyle Nelson. He raised the original money from the Ford Foundation to launch journalism fellowships at Stanford in 1966 and he was the fellowship director from 1969 until his retirement in 1985. He was instrumental in securing a permanent endowment for the fellowship with a $4 million gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami. The fellowship was then renamed the John S. Knight Professional Journalism Fellowships in 1984. Lyle had a deep interest in bringing outstanding international journalists to the fellowship to learn about U.S. press freedoms; he championed the cause of journalists being allowed to speak and write freely everywhere.

In 1996, the JSK Board of Visitors voted to rename the fund the Lyle and Corrine International Journalism Fellowship, because she had been so integral to the fellowship experience for many years, especially for international fellows and their families.

“She was deeply involved in everything Lyle did about Stanford and the fellowship program,” said emeritus JSK Fellowships director Jim Bettinger. “She knew Stanford at least as well as Lyle, and maybe better in some respects because she socialized and did volunteer work with so many faculty spouses. She lovingly kept tabs on the personal lives and family lives of fellows and spouses for years after their fellowship year had ended.”

Corrine and Lyle acted as godparents to the visiting journalists, even after Lyle retired. They hosted dinners at their home on the Stanford campus and reached out to scores of international fellows who were coming to the US, many for the first time. Since the Lyle and Corrine Nelson International Journalism Fellowship fund was established, more than 20 international journalists have been funded by the program, arriving from countries where press freedoms are under attack, including China, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

This year’s Lyle and Corrine Nelson International Journalism Fellow is Roman Anin, head of the investigative section of Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, one of the most famous Russian newspapers in the world. Since 2009, he has worked on cross-border investigations with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). He was a member of the Panama Papers investigative team that received the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2017 and also worked on the Paradise Papers investigation.

Anin said he saw the fellowship “as a way to save my life, literally.” He had been covering many dangerous stories involving criminals, corruption and assassins across Russia and worried at some point that he might be a target. He said that just a few weeks into his fellowship year, he’s already seeing how it will change his mindset and make him a better journalist. “I’m really grateful for this amazing opportunity to learn at one of the best universities in the world, and learn from my fellow JSK Fellows and the directors. It’s making me ask more questions about my work and seek new approaches.”

Corrine was born in Hamburg, North Dakota on December 13, 1920 and moved with her family to Reedsport, Oregon when she was 13. After graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, she majored in journalism at the University of Oregon. There she wrote for the Oregon Daily Emerald student newspaper and married the editor, Lyle Nelson, in 1941.

She traveled around the country following Lyle’s career as a journalism professor, university administrator and an expert on educational television. They traveled from DC, back to the University of Oregon, San Francisco State University, the University of Michigan and eventually Stanford University in 1961.

Her years at Stanford were some of the best in her life, Corrine often said. She and Martha Press, wife of fellowships managing director Harry Press, were practically fellowship staff members in the early days.

“Martha and I acted as chief cooks and bottle washers during those early years of the fellowship program and worked to help orient and take care of families who often came with the fellows,” she wrote in a remembrance that was read in May 2013 at the Stanford memorial service for Harry Press. Her well-known wit and sense of humor was on display as she remembered the early days of the fellowship.

“I remember one year a couple of the international fellows decided they would do the cooking for our regular gatherings. Mariusz Ziomecki from Poland worked in the Press kitchen preparing a goulash dish, which required dusting the meat with flour. He recruited helpers and they made the worst mess I have ever seen in a kitchen. Michio Katsumata from Japan decided to make tempura at our house. He couldn’t find traditional Japanese ingredients but substituted with a variety of vegetables, including sweet potatoes. During the cooking, he had to call his wife in Tokyo twice for instructions. Needless to say, there wasn’t a big demand for the finished product.”

Corrine was an active member of the Stanford Women’s Club and the Palo Alto community. She was awarded honorary membership in the Charter Auxiliary to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital for her more than 40 years of volunteer work. She mentored students, audited classes and accompanied Lyle in his worldwide travels.

When he was on assignment in New Zealand, Corrine spent her time at the Turnbull Library fact checking and editing a collection of myths and legends of Samoa, the text of which had been put together by a Catholic brother. This became a book that is still used in the Samoan schools, her family said. Her interest was the result of several visits to the Samoan Islands while Lyle was working on a book on the use of television for education in the Islands. As a member of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, they represented the US in Samoa for the 1976 celebration.

Corrine Nelson in her gardenAfter Lyle’s death in 1997 at their home in Stanford, Corrine eventually moved to Oregon to be closer to her two daughters. She became a resident at Mary’s Woods retirement community in Lake Oswego, Oregon in June 2002 and was an active participant in all types of activities and committees. She had a strong work ethic and always found ways to help others: knitting colorful scarves to be sold for the benefit of the Sister’s South African mission in Lesotho, baking trays of cookies for residents, growing roses to give to others to brighten their day and writing for The Resident Voice newspaper.

One day, already in her 90s, she sported a black eye when visited by JSK director Dawn Garcia. She explained, somewhat sheepishly: “Oh, that. I was trying to help the old ladies get onto the bus for a shopping trip. One of them leaned against me and knocked us both over.”

She was also famous for frequently emailing jokes and cartoons to her long list of friends, some of the jokes a tad off color, in contrast to her sweet demeanor. Corrine stayed with Harry Press and wife Mildred during her last trip to Stanford for the 2005 JSK Fellowships Alumni Reunion. “We talked and laughed late into the evening as we remembered the “best years of our lives” with the Fellowship Program,” she wrote to Garcia. “Then four years later, I was unable to attend the Reunion but got several long distance calls from fellows who wanted to be put on my email list as Harry had announced that I sent him “raunchy emails.” What a guy! He brightened our lives and everyone who knew him will remember his effervescent spirit.” The same could be said of Corrine, who touched so many lives with her care and generosity.

Her daughter, Lee Nelson, said that Corinne “totally had her wits about her in her final weeks and hours.” About three weeks before her death, after combating multiple and serious complications from age-related medical issues, including heart problems, her doctor asked if she was ready to sign up for hospice care. “Yes,” she agreed, “I’m at peace with it.” Are you afraid of dying, her doctor asked? “No, I’m not afraid,” Corrine answered. “Well, is there anything I can do for you, anything you need?” her doctor asked. Corrine paused; “Could you get me some chocolate ice cream?”

Survivors include her daughters, Gayle Green of Portland, OR and Dr. J. Lee Nelson of Seattle, WA and their husbands, Peter Green and Joe Ryan. Services will be private following cremation. Her ashes will rest with her husband’s at Evergreen Cemetery in McMinnville, OR.

The family asks that donations to honor Corrine Nelson be made to the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, designated for the Lyle and Corrine Nelson International Journalism Fellowship fund. To do this, please click on this link: giving.stanford.edu/goto/writeingift and type “Corrine Nelson” in the Special Instructions/Other Designation box.