Virginia Lawyer

VaLawyer_June/July 2013

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2013–14 VSB President Her Father's Faith and Support Leads Nelson to the VSB Presidency by Gordon Hickey THE DAY SHARON D. NELSON graduated from Georgetown Law Center, her father stood on the campus lawn with a big grin on his face. "My daughter the lawyer," he said. "I like the sound of that." It was an unlikely event. Her father, Gullmar "Gull" Nelson, rose from the immigrant slums of Hartford to become a scholar and an electrical engineer. She had an English degree from Tufts University and a history of being something of a rabble rouser. She was an activist against the Vietnam War and had even started an underground newspaper, called Ariel, while in high school in Marshfield, Mass. She remembers arguments with her father over the great issues of the day. "We had many because we were intellectually on different poles. … I was organizing sit-ins and demonstrations and marches. This was somewhat mysterious to Dad though he admired my hard work and passion." " He always had the highest expectations for her. "This was a man who got mad at me if I played nurse. He would ask, 'Why aren't you the doctor?'" No matter how her dad felt, she remembers that when the vice principal of her high school confiscated all the issues of her newspaper her father came to her defense. "My father, who did not agree with me, went to the vice principal's office and argued the First Amendment, and he emerged with all of my underground newspapers, and brought them home to me." He told her she could say what she wanted to say, but 10 couldn't distribute the papers on school property. He had done his research and he was right. Gull Nelson was a big fan of his daughter and understood that she had the gift of intelligence and the ability to argue her point forcefully. One day, she remembers, he said to her wryly, "Anybody who can BS like you can BS needs to go to law school." She did, graduating from Georgetown in 1978. Most lawyers can tell you about a mentor who led them along and helped them in their studies or in developing their legal practice. That person for Nelson was her father. He always had the highest expectations for her. "This was a man who got mad at me if I played nurse. He would ask, 'Why aren't you the doctor?'" "He wanted me to not be on the sidelines, not sit and watch television. … This guy was determined that I was going to turn out OK," Nelson said. He VIRGINIA LAWYER | June/July 2013 | Vol. 62 warned her that smart people tend to think that being smart is good enough. "God is not going care that you're smart, he's not going to care if you're powerful, he's not going to care if you have money," she quoted him as saying. "All God is going to look at is how good a heart you have." Nelson has a long history of service to her community. She started a library club for special education students – when she was in the sixth grade. She worked with the librarian to teach the children the Dewey Decimal System so that they could put returned books away. "It gave them a sense of worth," she said. "It also occurred to me that all these 'simple-minded' kids would be in Heaven while I was still marshaling my best arguments for St. Peter. That was a sobering thought." As a college volunteer while at Tufts, she taught physical education classes at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. She was a Girl Scout leader for seventeen years and brought three troops all the way through high school. She was a member of the PTA who held a host of offices and became its president. She and her husband are now court-appointed special advocates for abused and neglected children (CASAs) where they are working on their fourth case. Her history of service will continue after she leaves the presidency of the bar. She will then become the president of the Fairfax Law Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Fairfax Bar Association. During and after law school, Nelson worked in the General Counsel's Office of the Library of Congress, and loved it. But, life intruded. The first of her three daughters, Kelly, was born in 1979 with a serious medical condition that required Nelson to quit working and take care of her. Kelly was declared uninsurable. "The doctor took me aside and said, 'I know that you're a lawyer but you're going to have to stay home for at least four or five years and you're going to have to watch her and monitor her because no one else will like a mother will.'" The surgeon waived his fees, which Nelson called "a remarkable act of kindness." She spent a lot of time at the hospital and started helping out with the other babies as a

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