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Md. State College chaplain & professor remembered as vivid orator

  • Rev. W. Tycer Nelson’s service spanned nearly a quarter century

    Monday, September 9, 2019

    The Rev. William Tycer Nelson has a distinctive place in the history of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where he served as a sociology professor and the college chaplain for 23 years during the Maryland State College era beginning in 1948.

    Born in Marion, S.C. on Feb. 19, 1915, Nelson was one of seven siblings.  Ministry played a significant role in Nelson's life as his father, Dr. Warren Julius Nelson, was a Presbyterian minister who would live to see four of his six sons follow in his footsteps. 

    Nelson's preparation for the ministry began prior to his formal education and training at Johnson C. Smith University, Western Theological Seminary and the University of Pittsburgh. In a 1956 family profile (Rev. Warren J. Nelson and his four preaching sons) published in Sunday Digest, writer Harry Edward Neal paints a vivid picture of Tycer Nelson as a young boy, who officiated a funeral for a sparrow. This funeral was among several that young Nelson presided over including burials for frogs, birds and grasshoppers, which demonstrated his respect for all life at an early age.

    “There has also been sermons to 'congregations' - his brothers, his friends, his mother and his father,” Neal said about Nelson's practice for preaching as a child.

    As an adult, he went on to pastor churches in the Carolinas, New York, and Virginia. Ernest Satchell, a 1963 Maryland State alum, recalls Nelson's time as pastor of Union Baptist Church in Eastville, on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

    “I was 12 years old in 1953. The church didn't have an indoor pool at that time, so we were baptized in the creek,” Satchell said.

    “When they put me under the water, Rev. Nelson was holding one arm and a deacon was holding the other. They lost me somehow and I took on a little bit of water. I couldn't swim,” he said with laughter.

    “It was a real experience for me. I don't remember the sermon that day. I just remember trying to keep warm when we were back in the church on that cold day,” Satchell said.

    Nelson was regarded as a man of the people. 

    “He could hold his own with anyone from dignitaries to regular people,” Satchell said. During his time at Maryland State, Nelson was involved in bringing to campus some of the era's most notable dignitaries. Among these university guests of high stature were former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1954 commencement speaker), Thurgood Marshall (1957 commencement speaker) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1959 commencement speaker).

    “Rev. Nelson once told me 'you're a man first and preacher second',” said Dr. Herman Eure (MSC '69) regarding Nelson's ability to engage with his students.

    “Rev. Nelson was honest with himself,” said Eure, a retired professor emeritus of biology at Wake Forest University. “To say that he was a character is an understatement.”

    Nelson's melodious baritone voice still conjures fond memories for the campus community.

    “It's as though he had the ability to preach you right into heaven almost,” Eure said. 

    One of his most memorable sermons, “Stargazers and Trail Blazers,” serves as a reminder of his positive impact on the students of Maryland State. Nelson addressed the difference in people who go through life never fulfilling their dreams and those who act on their dreams.

    Nelson was a highly regarded speaker who routinely received invitations from prominent African American churches in New York City. In August 1957, he was a guest preacher at the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

    At 6'2” tall, William Tycer Nelson's physical stature served as a metaphor for his impact on the campus community.

    “Reverend Nelson was very special. There was no one like him,” said Jennie Johnson Aiden, a sociology major and 1969 Maryland State alumna.

    Aiden credits Nelson's encouragement for her to use her voice as a catalyst for her success. “I'm going as far as I can go,” recalled Aiden, a licensed clinical social worker.

    “Reverend Nelson knew who he was and he was a great mentor,” Eure said. “He advised us on how to march when we protested in the Town of Princess Anne.” 

    “It's almost like the E.F. Hutton (advertising) slogan. 'When Rev. Nelson spoke, people listened',” said Satchell. “He was a brilliant orator. He was everything.”

    Nelson also had a great sense of humor. Satchell recalls a Maryland State football game, where Nelson served as the public address announcer and suggested they call the wide receiver “Butter Finger” after Billy Finger dropped a pass. 

    Nelson married Jane Avant, whom he met at her father's church in Durham, N.C. They had one daughter, Gail Nelson-Holgate.

    “He was my dad. He was very outgoing and just easy to talk to,” said the singer and Broadway performer who grew up on the UMES campus. “He would always end his speeches, especially to students, with the line 'Go forth with a manly heart and without fear.”

    He was a loyal member (Phi Alpha chapter) of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. which recognized him posthumously for his four decades of dedication and service.  Nelson also held membership in the American Sociological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Association of College and University Chaplains.

    In 1965, he was recognized as College Minister of the Year by “Les Africans”.

    He died July 21, 1971 in Salisbury, Md. after a brief illness. He was just 56.

    By Tahja Cropper