Jerry Nelson, Teacher, Principal & Superhero

This week, we bring you the story of Jerry Nelson (a.k.a. Batman, keep reading below), who was just one of the educators at the Secondary Alternative School (SAS), formerly housed in what is today’s McMenamins Anderson School. In Jerry’s own words: “One of the satisfying things about working here is the relationship between students and teachers. It’s very close. Not a day goes by that a former student doesn’t come to talk to us, and it’s a good feeling.”

Today, many of those students still want to talk about their time enrolled in the hugely successful SAS program – and we welcome their stories! We continue to collect their remembrances about both the SAS program and about Anderson Junior High, so that we can share them with you and with our guests.

Educators define success in diverse ways. For some, it is reaching professional milestones; for others, it is the achievement of their students. For Secondary Alternative School (SAS) principal Jerry Nelson, success was marked more simply; it was a warm butterhorn roll with a note left on his desk by a student, a phone call from a grateful parent, a college graduation announcement in his mailbox. Jerry cultivated an environment of discipline, co-operation and “can-do spirit” at SAS, housed at Anderson School from 1973 to 2009. In doing so, he realized the most profound success of his 28-year career in education.

Initially, it seemed Jerry might not even get his own high school diploma. Born in 1934 in Bellingham, WA, Gerald “Jerry” Nelson was the son of Norwegian immigrants Bernice and Ingolf Nelson. Ingolf, a fisherman, took to the high seas. Throughout Jerry’s youth, his father fished six to eight months a year. Fortunately, Jerry had his older brother Gene looking out for him.

It was a good thing. Though never a serious troublemaker, Jerry gained a reputation as a rebel in Bellingham High School’s class of ’54. Perhaps it was the noisy hot rod that earned him the nickname “Pipes Nelson” . . . or it may’ve been the visits to Principal Karp’s office. Either way, Jerry wasn’t exactly a model student. Luckily, that didn’t deter Carol Ann LaCasse.

Jerry first glimpsed Carol standing on a stage at Bellingham High, singing the Gershwin jazz classic, “Embraceable You.” It was love at first sight. On August 28, 1954, they wed and spent the next five decades building a life together.

After high school, Jerry headed to college. But he had a little too much of a good time, flunked out and opted to join the Army. It was around then that Carol and Jerry welcomed their first daughter, Lori, and while stationed in Japan, their second, Sheryl. By the time their youngest, Lynn, was born, Jerry was out of the service and back in Bellingham, earning a B.A. in education at Western Washington University.

It was a challenging time for Jerry, but he had come to believe that there were no shortcuts to anything worth having, so he dug deep and got it done. As his daughter Lori recalls, “He had three kids while going to college . . . he’d work nights and worked rodeos in the summertime, he was building trenches at McDonald’s out in the sun, any job he could get . . . he provided for his family.”

All the hard work paid off. It must’ve been a surreal moment for Jerry when his former-principal-now-Northshore Superintendent Julian Karp hired him to teach social studies at Anderson Junior High in 1961. He’d come a long way from being the rebel of Bellingham High’s Class of ’54!

From the beginning, Jerry made a lasting impression on his pupils. As former student Barbara Culpepper recalls, “He was funny but had discipline . . . the best thing is, he loved us. You knew that. You knew.” Just ask Batman.

Jerry definitely had a knack for relating to students, as evidenced by his career path. In 1966, after training at the NDEA Institute, he became a counselor at Bothell’s Canyon Park Junior High. Three years later, he was promoted to vice principal. Then, in 1973, when the Northshore School District made a firm commitment to revising the alternative school program, Jerry was appointed principal. With his unique combination of toughness, confidence, sensitivity, optimism and wit, he was the perfect man for the job.

The goal of SAS is to serve the needs of students whose needs aren’t being met in traditional high schools. Jerry’s method was to focus on students as individuals. In addition to teaching, his dedicated team of educators worked to build students’ sense of self-worth, encourage educational exploration and provide strict accountability. As Jerry reflected on the program, “We treat them as adults. We explain our commitment to them and their commitment to us. And in the end, our goals are the same. It becomes a type of partnership.”

Under Jerry’s leadership, SAS flourished; countless kids were given the opportunity to work hard and earn a future worth having. For Jerry, there was no greater professional triumph.

1 Comment

  1. Karen Yowell on April 30, 2023 at 6:37 pm

    Jerry was the best! I graduated SAS in ‘73. I have fond memories of heated debates and thoughtful conversations in his office and in the halls. Now as we approach the 50th reunion, his absence will definitely be felt.

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