The transformation of a daughter inspires philanthropy

When their daughter, Carly, told them she wanted to go to the Interlochen Arts Academy for her junior and senior years of high school, Bill and Linda Nelson were skeptical.

“Carly was a learning different child,” says Bill. She’d been diagnosed in kindergarten with weaknesses in speech and auditory processing while the family was living overseas, and she’d attended a school for children with dyslexia in Texas for three years to mitigate these weaknesses after returning to the U.S.

“The teachers there told her she could do anything anybody else can do, it’s just going to take you longer, and you’re going to have to put a lot more effort into it,” he remembers. That advice had a tremendous impact on Carly, who developed various multisensory learning techniques and was willing to put in the extra effort to succeed.   

But there was one thing Carly didn’t struggle with: playing the harp. She’d been playing since she was 10 years old and attended Interlochen as a camper in 2002.

“We never had to remind Carly to practice,” Bill says. “She’d say, ‘This is what I like to do. This is how I relax.’ I think that’s why she took such pleasure in it. She could excel without any other considerations.”

But boarding school? For Carly? Bill and Linda weren’t so sure. She’d be on her own. She’d have to take the initiative to seek extra help or accommodations from teachers. Her education would be in her own hands.

So Linda chose February, the darkest, coldest moment of a Northern Michigan winter, to bring Carly for a tour of Academy. But even a cold winter couldn’t dissuade her from the chance to work with harp instructor Joan Holland in a community of students as passionate about art and music as she was.  Joan said they wanted her; Carly liked the Academy and Linda could not refuse at that point.

“The collaborative atmosphere of Interlochen allows students to excel,” says Bill. “You have competitiveness, sure, but there’s also a sense of shared experience. A lot of the kids didn’t find this in the schools they went to before. It’s what makes Interlochen special.”

That atmosphere, Bill says, helped his daughter to thrive. When she was a senior, he and Linda received an unexpected phone call from Interlochen. Their daughter was going to graduate as co-valedictorian of her class.

Carly went on to get degrees in music from Oberlin, Rice and the University of Michigan, and to become a harp teacher and performer. “She’s very good with kids,” he says, because she knows so many techniques for learning—skills she had to develop herself as a student.

When she was on the summer faculty at Interlochen Arts Camp, Bill often stopped in to see her and was impressed by what he calls the “electricity” of the place.

“I always remember driving in and seeing the banners—“Art Lives Here”—and thinking, ‘It’s true. This is a place that is worth supporting.’” Bill, an engineer, began serving as a consultant on the design scope for the Music Building and was later invited to join the Board of Trustees.

“I have this passion for getting the various musical disciplines under one roof, through the construction of a new Music Building,” he says, noting how important it is to have a worthy home for so many accomplished music students and faculty. He demonstrated that passion by initiating a challenge to spark progress with the fundraising efforts for the new building.

“We’ve raised over $6 million for the new music building in the past year, and now have a clear path toward starting construction in 2017.  Bill and Linda Nelson’s leadership and generosity paved the way for this success,” said Tim Dougherty, Interlochen’s Vice President for Advancement.  

“We have a lot to be thankful for in regards to Interlochen,” Bill says. “It had such a profound impact on our daughter. We want to give back and allow others to see how ‘Art Lives Here.’”