When it comes to describing Shirley Nelson, mere accolades seem inadequate. But perhaps Oliver Franklin, who attended Chantilly Baptist Church with her, said it best.
"SHIRLEY represented the conscience of Fairfax County in terms of the education of minority students," he said. "She wouldn't let any of us forget about our responsibility to the young people."
Sadly, Nelson, of Chantilly's Poplar Tree Estates community, died of a heart attack last Monday, March 27, while vacationing with her husband Johnny in Italy. But in the hearts of those who knew and loved her, and as the founder of the Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee (CPMSAC), her legacy will live on.
Clifton's Lee Cox, former assistant principal at Westfield High, knew Nelson since she and Johnny, and Cox and her husband William, were all students together at Alabama A&M University. Cox called her a sister, a true friend and a tenacious and determined individual.
"Wherever she saw things that weren't right, she tried to correct them and make a difference," said Cox. "When we were in Alabama, we had strong community support, encouraging [minority] kids to better themselves."
But after the Coxes and Nelsons moved to Northern Virginia, "Because there were so few blacks here then, in the 1980s, Shirley saw that missing here," said Cox. "She felt not enough attention was being paid to the kids and saw it as a void to be filled."
Nelson founded CPMSAC some 26 years ago and, since then, countless minority students have received extra tutoring, mentoring and encouragement to improve their grades. They participate each year in a ceremony commemorating Martin Luther King, and they receive honors at annual awards ceremonies acknowledging their academic achievement.
"I've known her about 15 years, and she's probably the most child-centered person I know," said Centreville's Fran Blair, also active in CPMSAC. "She did it from the heart. And she was also a good friend to me."
BLAIR STARTED STEP (Saturdays Toward Excellence Program) at Chantilly High, providing remedial tutoring and homework help for students on the weekends. And, she said, "Shirley was instrumental in getting me tutors for it. She encouraged me so."
"During the entire time I've known Shirley, she's devoted herself to the community and its children — especially those who are minorities," said Blair's husband Tom, also involved with CPMSAC. "She's worked tirelessly in her efforts dealing with cultural, social and educational activities for them."
Lee Cox said Nelson worked so hard and continuously on behalf of minority students that she "seemed driven — almost like someone who knew she might not have that long to be here. Her legacy was her dedication to children; even after she no longer had any of her own in the [Fairfax County] school system, she was still fighting for them."
The Coxes moved here in 1974, and when Shirley — who worked for IBM in Alabama — was later transferred to this area, she and Johnny called their old friends and the Coxes helped them find their first home, in Greenbriar. "They were our family away from Alabama," said Cox. "We spent all our holidays together and celebrations of our kids."
Although Shirley had a stroke several years ago, she'd recovered well and had been doing fine in recent years. So when Lee Cox learned of her death, she said, "I was absolutely floored. It was just a total shock."
Cox said this trip to Europe was one of the Nelsons' dreams. "They'd gone to a friend's wedding in Germany, a couple years ago, and also visited Paris," she said. "They loved it so much, they wanted to go back again. We were looking forward to hearing all their stories and seeing photos of their trip when they returned."
Now, she said, "Through his faith, Johnny's the one holding everyone else together. We all fall to pieces when we see him, and he comforts us. He's a wonderful person, and he and Shirley were soulmates and loved each other very much."
The Rev. Jerry Bryant, pastor of Chantilly Baptist, has known Shirley for 10 years and noted how well-respected she is. "Her work in the church and in the community is legendary," he said. "The end of February, she did a program for Black History Month — from Africa to present day — and it was wonderful. Everyone in the church knew and loved Shirley; her life was such a blessing to so many."
He said Nelson always wanted things done well and done right. "When Sister Shirley spoke, people got in line and listened," said Bryant. "Years ago, she asked [Bryant's predecessor] Pastor LeRoy Peyton what she could do for the youth. He told her to put something together, and out of that grew CPMSAC and the Voices of Chantilly speech choir."
CHANTILLY BAPTIST offers a 2 1/2-year program teaching members more proficient evangelism, and Nelson just completed it. "But she didn't live to graduate," said Bryant. "So this summer, at the national evangelism workshop in Los Angeles, I pray that Brother Johnny will walk across the stage and get her certificate."
Church member Joe Barr "seemed [equally] at home with family, friends, kids and politicians. I was honored to have known her and I learned many lessons from her about raising my own kids. She was a great lady; those touched by her were made better."
Roy Lipsey, Chantilly Baptist's Board of Deacons chairman, said Nelson fixed problems, instead of complaining, and got others to join her. And, her said, "Her commitment to excellence in every task she undertook set high standards for all of us to live up to."
Virginia Run's Chuck Coffin, also active in CPMSAC, said Nelson told him children are like starfish: "She said, 'Those thriving are in the ocean, but lots are washed up on the shore and need help to survive. If what we're doing helps just one child, it's worth it.'"