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Educator builds legacy of caring

Many memories are amassed over a lifetime in education. The most cherished ones are those where children's lives are influenced by a caring teacher or administrator.

Marie Nelson once talked a student out of committing suicide.

Nelson, 58, is retiring June 10 as the Merced Union High School District's director of student support services. She started in 1975 as a secretary at Merced High School, went back to college for her master's degree, served as a school psychologist for 11 years and became the administrator in charge of special education programs 15 years ago.

"To me, each student counts," Nelson said. "That's what I'm passionate about. High school is not an easy thing to maneuver through."

As a school psychologist, one day Nelson encountered a "beautiful little girl" who was extremely distraught. She spent the entire day with the student, ultimately dispelling the thoughts about ending her life.

Years later, the woman called Nelson and fulfilled a promise she had made to her years before -- speaking to her about the infant she was cradling in her arms.

Nelson said she has counseled hundreds of students over the years and realizes the power of words. "You have a choice in how you say things to kids," Nelson said. "You can have a tough conversation with a child and still show kindness. I've had many stories about students who are struggling. We help whoever steps up to us. Be careful what you say and encourage kids."

The high school district with campuses in Merced, Atwater and Livingston has more than 1,000 special education students. Nelson said learning disabilities can profoundly damage a child's self-esteem, and many don't feel worthy.

As an attendance clerk at Merced High, Nelson recalls counseling a student who struggled with drugs but ultimately turned his life around. The man is now 40 years old, owns a construction company and came back to thank Nelson for her caring influence.

A well-respected football player once loudly boasted he had "come out of the closet" and admitted to his friends that he had a learning disability, Nelson recalled.

Keith Hunter, Golden Valley High School's varsity basketball coach and a special education teacher, called Nelson a "wonderful lady and a good teacher."

"She took a chance on me and I really appreciate that, looking back," Hunter said. "I enjoy working with students with learning disabilities. She's obviously done a lot to take special education out of the Dark Ages. She's somebody I have the utmost respect for, a great boss and a leader."

As retirement dawns, Nelson knows she's not going to sit at her Atwater home doing nothing.

A member of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Atwater, Nelson is involved in the "Journey in Christianity" and "Spiritual Direction" mentoring programs and hopes to work where she's needed. She also is caring for her elderly parents.

"I've got a lot more to do," Nelson said. "The spiritual part of my life is very important. I'm only 58 and am very happy I had this opportunity to work with children."

Nelson said she is disappointed that the progress in accepting people with disabilities is slower than she would like. Now there is more inclusion of special education students in the regular classroom, and today's students are more accepting of those with challenges than previous generations.

Nelson was born on Faial in the Azores and emigrated to Atwater when she was 7 years old, not speaking a word of English. Now fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and English, Nelson attended Atwater schools and graduated from Atwater High School in 1971. She went to Merced College for one semester and then worked for the Merced County Human Services Agency.

The mother of two grown children who now are special education teachers, Nelson has two young granddaughters.

Nelson and her husband,who was stationed at Castle Air Force Base, were transferred to the Azores for a year and then returned here.

Nelson originally intended to become a certified public accountant, but her sister, Maria Bertao, talked her into going into education. She worked for five years as a secretary at Merced High's East and North campuses before enrolling at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

Nelson graduated from CSUS in 1985 with a master's degree and credential in psychology. She interned with the high school district before becoming a school psychologist. She jokes about wearing out several cars traveling between campuses.

Over the years Nelson has traveled to the Azores, Portugal, France, Italy and Israel. Both her parents only had four years of school but she is grateful she had a full opportunity for educational experiences.

"I used to golf but this job ruined my golf game," Nelson jokes. "I'd like to pick up the game again. I've been blessed watching families grow and many of my students now have children."

John Olson is principal at Merced High School but started in 1996-97 as a special education teacher. He became a program specialist at the district office for four years and considers Nelson a mentor.

"I never considered administration and loved teaching," Olson said. "She's something special and exposed me to administrative duties. She can do it all. I'm impressed she has such a knack of taking a crisis situation and making it less stressful for adults. I'm proud to have worked with her. She will be missed."

Melissa Bowler is one of five school psychologists with the district and interned with Nelson nearly 20 years ago.

"She's very caring and a great lady. She has amazing faith," Bowler said. "She has had a single-minded focus on students' needs and is always focusing on what's good for students, which I found unique. She has accomplished a lot."

Bowler said Nelson has a belief that students can learn and achieve and has been instrumental in developing vocational programs for students with special needs.

At a recent district awards night, Nelson was named Administrator of the Year.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

EDITOR'S NOTE: 'Merced Matters' appears every Monday. In it we will tell the stories of Mercedians -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. We hope you like our effort to let you know more about others in our community, and we welcome your suggestions. Please contact Mike Tharp at or (209) 385-2456 with your ideas for 'Merced Matters.'