Carleen Nelson had worked as a legal secretary for several years when she left her job to take care of her young children.
“When I decided to come back to work, I didn’t want to work for lawyers anymore, because they have so many unhappy people come into the office,” she said. “For divorces, for wills, and all these things. Suing people. I didn’t want any more of that. I said, ‘Well, I’ll go up to Colby, if they’ll hire me, and it’ll be a happy situation.’”
They did, and it has been.
Alumni, thousands of them, got the fat envelope from Colby admissions from Nelson.
Nelson is administrative assistant to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Parker Beverage, one of six deans and/or directors for whom she has worked during almost half a century on Mayflower Hill. During Nelson’s time at Colby there have been three presidents (she missed J. Seelye Bixler by a month but knew him well and got to see him speak at commencement when her son, Chappy Nelson ’82, graduated). When she started there were 12 buildings on the new campus, men and women lived in separate dormitories complete with house mothers, and women’s sports were restricted to activities deemed appropriate—like archery.
Nelson, who is as diminutive as she is energetic, is a repository for volumes of Colby history, nearly all of which she keeps in her head. After agreeing to an interview request from Colby, she typed out a few facts and anecdotes from her mental archive. Her report is succinct and precise:
“I watched Eustis Building being built before the Office of Admissions moved there. Physical plant men moved the furniture. There were no computers, so vital information about applicants was kept on 3x5 index cards. I remember typing 50 notification letters per day, making carbon copies for the files.”
Nelson remembers the first time she was confronted by a computer. She was on hand for the first appearance of the electric typewriter, too, and neither innovation left her flummoxed. She credits her excellent commercial course teacher at Bridgton (Maine) High School, where she was taught typing, bookkeeping, record keeping, and Gregg shorthand, which she loves to this day.
Last summer, Nelson’s high school class (1947) had its 61st reunion, which she organized. There were 23 in the class, but the number has dwindled to 12, she said.
Four years out of high school she married Fred Nelson and they moved to Connecticut. But after four years she missed Maine, so they bought a dairy farm in Clinton, eventually milking 50 cows. They stopped actively farming after a tornado destroyed their barn, and Fred went to work for Ethan Allen Furniture, in Burnham, the next town over. Fred Nelson passed away in 1995, but Nelson still lives on the farm, with her three children nearby.
“I’m a great-grandmother,” she said. “Write that down. I’m proud of that."
Nelson is active in the Brown Memorial United Methodist Church in her town and, as international-student coordinator for Colby admissions, she handpicks a Colby student to speak to the church women’s group every year. “The latest person that I took was a young man from Afghanistan, Qiam [Qiamuddin Amiry ’09],” she said. “They loved him. And Joerose Tharakan [’08]. She was a big hit. Every year I try to take some. I bet I’ve taken forty kids.”
She remembers students, and students remember Nelson. A Japanese alumnus sends news of his college-age children. When he was at Colby, Nelson and her husband took him to the coast for a lobster dinner. Once, in May, Nelson drove him to an apple orchard to see the blossoms. “He’s never forgotten these things,” she said.
An alumna from the Class of 1964 still sends her a Christmas card.
Nelson was in admissions as the political climate changed on campus and in the country, and she remembers demonstrations with students circling Eustis “shouting and ranting.” Students even occupied the building. “They were sitting all over the floor,” she said, “and all the other secretaries, they were scared to death. I said, ‘These kids aren’t going to hurt you.’ But they were afraid so they closed their doors. I left mine open. They sat down and I would step over their legs.”
It’s not been all work for Nelson. She’s traveled, with friends, all over the world, hitting six continents and many countries: Nepal, Peru, India, China, New Zealand, South Africa among them. But she has no plans to retire. “If I didn’t feel I was contributing, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “When the day comes that I feel I’m not up to it, then I’m out of here. But I still feel I have the energy of a thirty-year-old woman.”
Beverage, her current boss, can attest to that. He waxes about Nelson’s legendary reliability, her quickness to master new computer software, her efficient handling of government documents relating to international students, her help in prioritizing his own tasks. “She knows when I’ve got to really attend to something,” Beverage said.
“I’ll miss her immensely,” he said, “—if she leaves before me.”