In The Limelight

John Nelson

Interview by Teresa Nguyen

December, 2020

If you truly make decisions that aren’t just about making your life a little better, but also for the person next to you, whether it’s a neighbor or a family member, a friend or coworker or someone at church. Even one thing you do for one person, those things add up…and they do add up to an Ironman. Don’t look at the whole marathon, you have to look at each step of the way.

~ John Nelson

Real Estate Agent - EXIT Realty HGM 
Former Program Manager for the Birth to Three Program with CESA 2 – Early Learning Services
Former Olympic Speed Skater Coach 
Former Parker High School Soccer Coach, Swim Coach and Tennis Coach
Singer/Songwriter/Musician
Volunteer Charity Musician - Agrace Hospice, Music for Haiti concert at JPAC, ECHO, PADDY’s PAWS, G.I.F.T.S. Men’s Shelter “Shelter Me” concert, Friends of Noah, fundraising for grants for UW-Rock and the School District of Janesville plus numerous other causes.
The Nelson Family - Janesville Heritage

The original John Horatio Nelson, my ancestor, arrived with his family from Ireland in 1849 to Ellis Island in America and settled in Janesville soon after. He married Kate, who was a teacher.
 
The family ran a livery stable called Nelson Livery. It was located downtown, near the corner of Main and East Court Street. (In those days, a livery stable was where one could hire horses, teams and wagons, but also could board privately owned horses could be boarded for a short time. The livery stables were often attached to a hotel or boarding house.
Two Nelson brothers, John M. and John H. “Rash” Nelson, ran the livery.  He was my grandfather’s dad. Their livery business was opened in 1885. Then, by 1889, they entered the undertaking business, as well. They renamed it The Nelson Bros. Undertaking and Livery. In 1920, they were offering cars for funerals.
John Horatio Nelson
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In 1930, my grandfather, John Nelson, bought a funeral home on S. Jackson St., and it became the Nelson-Kimball Funeral Home. My dad grew up in a home next door to the family funeral home. He had all sorts of stories about things they would do with embalming fluids and flames!

My grandfather had worked with Neal Schneider. Neal and his wife, Dee, took over the business in the early 1960s and, when my grandfather passed away, Schneider took care of the funeral. My grandfather died when my parents were on their honeymoon in 1962. 
 
In 1972 the name of the business changed to Schneider Funeral Home, and in 1974 a new funeral home was built on East Racine Street, its current location. Today the business is known as Schneider Funeral Home & Crematory. 
Nelson Bros. Livery in downtown Janesville
The Early Years

I was born in Janesville. There are three of us, me, my sister Katy and brother Mike. We were all pretty close in age. My parents both worked. My mom, Anne, was from Albany. She was a teacher, primarily at Wilson, Adams and Washington. My dad, John, was a banker at Rock County Bank.

My parents both loved music, they loved cooking and both loved gardening. So, we grew up with all that good stuff. 

I attended Graper’s Nursery School and then Adams elementary. Then I attended Franklin Middle School and Parker High School.

We grew up on Benton Avenue. That neighborhood was full of kids. We had games going every night - Hide & Seek, Kick the Can, Capture the Flag. We ran around a lot, had a lot of fun.
 
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John Nelson, grandfather
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Education

At Parker I was involved in Varsity Soccer, Gymnastics, Tennis and Swim. I played trombone in band and also played guitar in Jazz Band. I was sporty and musical, so I didn’t fit in with anybody!

I always wanted to help people. By the time I was leaving high school, I’d had a social studies teacher, John Peterson, who encouraged me to get into psychology. 

I attended U-Rock and UW Whitewater, earning my Psychology and Exercise Physiology degrees. I really wanted to go into Sport Psychology and coaching.
Anne and John, with John and Katy
That led me to coaching a couple of Olympic speed skaters. 

When I was in grade school, Janesville had a speedskating club. It was run by a guy named Paul Westerman. Eventually, Paul told me to call up the FitzRandolph boys. I skated with both of them. Casey went on to the Olympics! 
I started coaching younger people in Janesville. I had a 14-year-old kid. I took him up to Verona to train and get him faster than some of these other kids. And, boy, he took off! That was Tucker Fredricks, who went on to win world records and skated in the Olympics!
I lived in Whitewater, but I came home every night to coach soccer, swim and tennis at Parker. That was my job during college.
 
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Two North American Speed Skaters - John Nelson (left)
Casey FitzRandolph in the 2002 Olympics.
Casey FitzRandolph in the 2002 Olympics
Tucker Fredricks winning the 2013 ISU Speed Skating Long Track World Cup Finals!
Career Life

In a kind of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment, I had flown out to Phoenix to look at grad schools for Sports Psychology. Right near the end of my senior year, my dad had a series of strokes. In those days, they didn’t really have home therapy, so I stayed back in Janesville to help my mom out with my dad. I started working at Mercy Hospital, here in Janesville, in the Psych Unit. 

My coaching goals were kind of sidetracked because I needed to be here to help my folks.

Then I started working for the County in Child Protective Services and did that for a couple of years. Eventually I worked in the Birth to Three Program with CESA 2 – Early Learning Services. I was with them for almost 20 years!
 
I eventually got into Real Estate and have been doing that ever since. I work with Exit Realty HGM and I love it! Since the pandemic, I’ve actually been really busy throughout all of this.
We were declared essential.
 
Anything that has to do with properties, whether it’s home ownership, commercial or investment properties, we cover...remodeling, too. We hook folks up with lenders as well as contractors.
 
My radius is about 200-miles. I’ve been with them for about four and a half years now. I joined around the time my dad died, which was four years ago.
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Looking back, any of the jobs I’ve had are about helping people. It’s never been about making money, that’s always been secondary. I try to be the best that I can be and the rest will fall into play.
Music in the Family

My mother, Anne, was an incredible ragtime pianist. She’d been playing and performing on piano since she was about 3 years old. There were stories of her being able to play “The Marine Hymn” standing underneath the piano, reaching around to the keys! 

My father, John, didn’t know what he wanted to do out of school. He was drafted near the end of the Korean War and luckily ended up in Germany instead of Korea. He would listen to jazz music on reel to reel tapes. 
 
 
The Nelson siblings: Katy, Mike and John
When I was growing up, he would dig them out and play his jazz and Delta blues on reel to reel tapes. That was what got me introduced and hooked on music.

My mom gave us the book and album, Peter and the Wolf. This book broke all the orchestra’s instruments apart, each animal representing an instrument. That, in a really crude sense, along with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, were pretty much my inspiration in how to make records.

I just ate it up, tried to read as much as I could about George Martin and the production end of it, as well as the creative end of it, like those guys going off into different corners of the studio and each one coming up with their own little riffs and how they’d incorporate those into the album. 
My brother played upright bass, my sister played French horn and I played trombone in elementary school band.
We used to be able to fit all of those instruments, ourselves and our mom in a little Volkswagen!

Songwriting

This is going to sound weird, but I wrote my first song when I was six. My dad bought a cassette player with a little external microphone. I wrote a song about a model ship. My brother wrote a song about pandas and my sister wrote a song about gerbils. That tape is still in my possession somewhere and each of the songs is about 45 seconds long. It’s like “The Greatest Hits of the Nelsons”.
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I think I was in high school when I started to monkey with writing songs that I appreciated. I didn’t begin multitrack recording until after college, when I could afford those toys.

Once, while playing a gig at the Janesville Motor Lodge, I was looking out into the crowd and I noticed that people were singing the words to our song. That was a pretty powerful moment.  It also instilled in me something I try to do in any of the music when I write. 
I wrote all kinds of songs about COVID and politics and then realized, even I wouldn’t want to hear this stuff! There’s enough negativity, fear and hatred in the world. So, I’ve always tried to make my songs more about love, peace, relationships and humor.

I’ve been writing a lot and recording a lot. It’s been a perfect time to work on a CD. 

The Bands

That started early. At Franklin Middle School, I had a little band that I had put together. We played out, but our parents had to come to the gigs because we weren’t old enough to even drive! The band I stayed in through high school was called Equinox.
 
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The band members were me and some of my friends; Tommy Christianson and twin brothers Scott and Steve Hahn. Their dad was a pathologist and my grandfather was the County Coroner and ran the funeral home. There was this common theme going on! 
I didn’t have time to keep up with bands and gigs during college. But I was asked to take a semester off during school because I liked beer more than I liked studying…and they kind of frown upon that. So, that semester I was off at U-Rock, I went on the road with a band. One of the guys in the band was Mike McKearn. Years later, after I graduated from college, I was in line at a concert and ran into “Mac”, as he was called. He was recording at a studio down in Rockton, IL and said, "We need a bass player." He asked me if I knew any. I lied and said, “Yeah, me.”

So, I called up my friend, Joe Quaerna, who owns O’Riley and Conway’s, and said, “Joe, I need to borrow your bass.” I had two weeks to teach myself how to play funk style, slappin’ and poppin’. I drove down to Rockford and passed the audition! So, the first “real band” experience I had was doing studio work down at Noise Chamber Studio down in Illinois with a guy named Jimmy Johnson.

That opened up doors for a lot of other opportunities. We opened for all kinds of pretty big acts like Ted Nugent, Bad Company and Steppenwolf. I played in a band with the drummer for Cheap Trick, Bun E. Carlos. I played on some CD’s for a bunch of groups. 
By the time I was down in the Noise Chamber and playing for these events, and because of my upbringing and influences in my youth with The Beatles and all, I was constantly trying to better myself and encouraged others to not just do the covers, but to make it uniquely their own. I’ve had that attitude ever since. I want to hear someone sound like themselves, not like somebody else.
John Nelson opening for Steppenwolf
Goofy Band Names

Usually coming up with the names involved some sort of wine or beer. We had the Schwanky Modes, the Boondoggles and Fargin Minkers. Tim Markus had a hand in some of those goofy names. Johnny Can’t Stop came from his wife, Lori. 

We used to play at Fins and the night would drag out, we were having fun, sweating like crazy and drinking. So, we had a competition with the crowd to see who could last the longest without going to pee. We would keep playing last for a really long time and, at one-point, Lori said, “Oh my God, it’s like Johnny Can’t Stop.” We said, "There’s a band name right there!"
Memorable Band Moments

There are so many fun ones…some dirty ones, too! I got in trouble for humping Ted Nugent’s stuffed wolf on stage once. I’m not the only one who did that, either!
 
They were supposed to do our sound check. This was in front of like 30,000 people at Riverfest. Our sound guy, who had been the drummer for the band EIEIO, came on the PA and said, “Guys, they’re not going to let us do a sound check. Ted Nugent’s got a press interview.” His interview was about the NRA and him wanting to buy the White Buffalo from Janesville.
 
He had these two, giant stuffed wolves on each side of the stage. So, I took off my guitar, jumped in and proceeded to hump the wolf! Some guy came up and grabbed me saying, “Please stop humping Ted’s wolf!” 
Johnny Can't Stop - John Nelson, Jay Arena and Tim Markus
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John with Teresa Nguyen and the late Tony Huml
Some of my best moments have been the opportunity to get to play and collaborate with so many different people over the years - like Teresa Nguyen, Tony Huml, the band Rock Fish, Somo Mojo, Duane Worden and so many others.  

We recorded a CD with the band Somo Mojo for about $10,000, and we won a RAMI (Rockford Area Music Industry) Award for it! We got to open up for all kinds of folks.
Ironman

I have done 4 Ironman races. I was a swimmer and a speedskater. I would do the biking and running to get in shape for skating. I raced bikes with my brother…he was super-fast.
But, with Ironman, you first have to volunteer the year before just to get a ticket to get into it. It’s about a year’s training. Literally, the day after the one before, you have to be there the next morning for training. 

So, you need endurance, to train your body to put up with as many hours as that race is going to take you. That could be anywhere from 14 to 17 hours. It’s not just about getting fast. You can’t try to go fast; your body won’t last that long. It’s about being smart in your training and smart in the race.
 
You never want to push. If you push too hard, you’ll pay the price a couple of hours down the road. And you won’t finish. You’re always keeping gas in your fuel tank and your engine in check.
Nelson brothers, Mike and John
 
I love the training part of it because you find different people to run, bike or swim with. Other times, you’re by yourself, just getting focused. Most of the workouts didn’t take more than a couple hours in a day. 

My goal was always just to finish the race. My family & friends would come to cheer me on. The day starts at 7 a.m. with a swim. And I was pretty slow, so I was finishing in the wee hours of the night.

These days I still bike and run, just not as fast. 
Community Involvement

I’ve always had a spot in my heart for Hospice because of their efforts with various family members.
We started doing gigs for Agrace back when Sips & Sounds first started at the Olde Towne Mall, with Jackie Wood. We did that for 15 or 16 years. I take pride in that. I did go back to the event this past year.
We’ve played for various charities like the Music for Haiti concert at JPAC, ECHO, PADDY’s PAWS, G.I.F.T.S. Men’s Shelter with the “Shelter Me” concert, Friends of Noah, we played for a bird rescue fundraiser, helped with grants for UW-Rock and grants for the School District of Janesville and for individuals, like some kids who had emergency medical needs.
We tried to be as available as we could. But we had to be careful about how much we did, as far as free shows go, because a couple of different charities would take advantage of us. Sometimes that would happen when we would donate a free private show in an auction. People would be expecting us to play 6-hour private parties and such, then they’d get drunk and be so rude to us. It never ended well.

Changes in Our Community

General Motors closing in Janesville was terrifying to a lot of people, but I think it opened up doors for so many opportunities for people. When I was growing up, you kind of had two choices – you either went to college or went to work at GM. I saw my friends’ parents working so hard there.  
What I’ve noticed is, the rebound Janesville made, with the efforts of guys like John Beckord of Forward Janesville, is coupled with an effort to encourage our next generation, our kids to come back to work and settle in Janesville and raise their families here.

My generation couldn’t wait to get out of Janesville. But now, a young person can work, come home, go to a place downtown that isn’t a chain, have a beer that was made in Janesville, watch some local performers, etc. This community has become a great place to raise a family and have all kinds of experiences for all ages. That wasn’t true around 10 years ago. Those changes are so apparent to me.
Dave Tompton and John Nelson  in 2018
To watch our downtown to go from a deteriorated old area to now - face-lifting these beautiful buildings. A lot of the architecture there is Civil War era on Main and Milwaukee Streets! It’s embracing our history with new and independent businesses. It’s becoming a great city to want to live in and a great city to visit.

Being in the real estate business, I look back and my first sale was commercial property. For folks to be able to buy real estate at a pretty good price, and in a beautiful location, with awesome schools, we’re 10 minutes away from the country, we’re 45 minutes from any major city around us…it’s great!
COVID-19 and Its Impact

I thought I was fine for a while. Then I started to get a little depressed before things opened up. I was getting nervous about playing out too soon. I didn’t want to be responsible for someone getting sick at a show. But I was itching to play, and it seemed like the world could use a little happiness, especially now. My gigs are on hold for a while, that’s the reality of it.

It’s been crazy because the people who are suffering can’t be hugged. And to not be able to hug each other or be around each other is tough. Families can’t hold the hands of those who are dying. It’s horrible!

This disease has been really tough to deal with. As a parent, I needed to comfort my son and not show that I was scared, too. It doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t care about love or compassion.
If there’s a silver lining in all this COVID-19 quarantine time, it gave me time to hone my cooking skills! I love cooking, as well. My parents were great cooks. By now, though, I’m just kind of tired of it all.

Still, people need to be mindful and stop just thinking about themselves, to think about others. The way COVID-19 has been politicized is not okay. There are retail clerks out there, essential workers, and our politicians decide that they can’t get “combat pay” when they’re risking their lives? 

I’ve given clerks gift cards; they’re just stuck in their shifts exposed to all of this. People cannot just be treated like ‘casualties of war’, like it’s nothing.


I’ve had friends die of COVID-19. They weren’t old or medically frail. We have to all be responsible through this pandemic!

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Family

I raised my kids as a single dad. My daughter is a teacher in Madison, carrying on after her grandmother. My son is an accounting major in Whitewater, carrying after my dad.

I lost my dad 4 years ago and lost my mom last July. She loved Janesville. My kids were lucky to be raised around them and it rubbed off. Near the end of my mom’s career, one of her friends worked for Van Galder International.

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Then my mom became a tour guide and traveled all over the world.She would purposely pick hotels with pianos in the lobby so when they were done touring for the day, she would play piano at the end of the day.
She enjoyed her job and that rubbed off on me. I have my days that aren’t fun, too, but I know that when I’m entertaining people, it brings them some fun, a chance to forget their own problems for a while.

Role Models

My parents were my role models, for sure. 

My moms two brothers and a sister were all big influences on me. The Whalens, Mary, Joe and John. Mary and John both worked for the state as social workers and gave me great guidance when I first got into that kind of work.

Also, my lifelong friend, Bob Jackson, who was originally from England, was a big influence on me. He was also a soccer player and influenced my soccer and speedskating and was kind of a life coach. He’s now in assisted living. Bob used to go down and groom Fireman’s Park before it was an official park. He would also walk around, taking donations to hang flower pots on the streetlights downtown. He would also mow the Rockport Park to make it playable for soccer. 

He taught me about giving back and he was so humble about it. He taught me that value.
Life Lessons

I think if you’re a good person, good things happen to you. I had a friend, Sebastian Mendez, who was from Panama, who came to Janesville as a retired Jesuit priest and worked as an interpreter. He died a few years ago from a massive heart attack. We were having coffee once and I was all upset about girls and such.

Sebastian asked me, “What’s the matter, what’s going on?”

I told him, “Every time I think I have the right girl, it goes up in flames.”

He replied, “John, you need to trust life. I’m not talking about in a religious or spiritual way. Life is innately good and it finds a way to help good people. The world will find a way.”
 
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Advice

If you get enough good people around you and each other, you can begin to make a positive ripple in the world. That’s the only thing you can control. If you think too big, you'll say to yourself, “Oh, I don’t have any impact on the world or my community, it’s just too big.”

You can have a game plan, but it can fall apart, and sometimes right away. But, the one thing you can control is the next thing directly in front of you. Whether it’s running, and it’s your next step forward, or you're biking and it’s the next pedal, or your swimming and it’s the next stroke. When that game plan gets thrown out, because something goes bad, how are you going to adjust? Are you making a plan? What is your logical and methodical course of action?
The same applies to life. If you truly make decisions that aren’t just about making your life a little better, but also for the person next to you, whether it’s a neighbor or a family member, a friend or coworker or someone at church. Even one thing you do for one person, those things add up…and they do add up to an Ironman. 

Don’t look at the whole marathon, you have to look at each step of the way.