Even today, Bill Nelson describes himself as an “authentic hayseed.” He is a natural politician with a down-to-earth style that has won over Florida voters for more than three decades. Nelson got his early start in leadership in 4-H.
Clarence William “Bill” Nelson II was born Sept. 29, 1942, in Miami, Fla., and is Nannie Merle and Clarence Nelson’s only child. When Nelson was in second grade his family moved to Melbourne, Fla., where his father, an attorney, became a successful real estate developer.
Shortly after Nelson’s 14th birthday his father died of a heart attack, forcing the boy to take on more responsibilities at home. “You do what you have to do - you have to cope, and so you do. It was just my mother and me then,” Nelson said.
Growing up, Nelson would often visit his grandparents’ 60-acre homestead near Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch NASA rockets lift off from nearby Kennedy Space Center. His father's family had come to Florida from Chicago in 1915 and homesteaded a 160-acre tract in Brevard County on land that is now at the northern end of the Kennedy Space Center runway used by the shuttle. A copy of the homestead deed signed by President Woodrow Wilson hangs in Nelson's Senate office today.
Nelson made his first foray into politics while still in high school, and his early achievements were anything but modest. He was treasurer, vice president, and president of the State 4-H Council. He was also class president of his high school and an international president of Key Club International, a daunting list of responsibilities that contributed to his boy-wonder reputation.
The impact 4-H had on his life was significant. “Florida 4-H provided me with an early training in government and politics. I am a much stronger and better person because of the many positive experiences I had in 4-H,” said Nelson.
Bill Nelson recalls his days in 4-H with great fondness and the impact extension agents had on his life. “The Brevard 4-H program flourished under the leadership of Mrs. Bledsoe and Mr. James Oxford, the Agricultural Agent.”
Nelson says that his extension agents and the opportunities they provided helped him develop skills that have helped him throughout his career. “The foundation for my public speaking and leadership skills were built during my years as a youth in 4-H. I am grateful for the role Mrs. Bledsoe played in making the 4-H experiences available to me and to thousands of other youth during her 22-year career in the Cooperative Extension Service.”
Nelson distinguished himself in junior cattle breeding, where he received several blue ribbons. He was one of the youngest members to be voted into the Santa Gertrudis Breeders International. He started his herd with one bull, and expanded to 24 head of cattle.
He put the public speaking skills he honed in 4-H contests to good use. Nelson traveled the world speaking on behalf of the Key Club, once delivering a speech on Radio Free Europe to residents of the Soviet Union. Nelson was given an office and a secretary at his high school to help him keep up with all of his extra-curricular activities.
In 2008 while addressing the young people participating in the Champion of Champions program at the Florida State Fair, Nelson recalled his days raising cattle in 4-H. “I came here with my beef cattle herd I raised from calves with the 4-H. Many of you in the audience are, or were, in 4-H – so you know what I’m talking about,” said Nelson.
He remembered the anticipation of bringing his cattle to the fair. “Bringing my prized bull to this fair – where I won second place with my bull “Billy Boy” - was pretty heady stuff for a kid raised in Melbourne. But with my heifer, Gussie, I took first place in Kissimmee. My 24 head of pure bread Santa Gertrudis brought $10,000 - and, in 1960 dollars, that financed my education.”
Nelson headed to the University of Florida after high school, financing his education with the profits from the herd of cattle he raised as a 4-H project. He channeled his energy into campus politics, building a network of friends and contacts that helped elect him class president as a freshman.
After two years in Gainesville, Nelson was one of 28 students nationwide selected to transfer to Yale. His roommate was Bruce Smathers, the son of U.S. Sen. George Smathers, D-Fla., and a future Florida secretary of state. Nelson interned in Smathers' Senate office during the summers of 1961 and 1962. He earned a B.A. in political science in 1965 and wrote a senior thesis titled, “The Impact of Cape Kennedy on Brevard County Politics.”
He continued his education with a degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1968.
While Nelson was in law school his mother, Nannie Merle, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Nelson moved off-campus to a house in Charlottesville, Va., where he lived with his mother and cared for her while attending classes. Around the time Nelson finished his final law school exams, Nannie Merle died at age 59.
While in college, Nelson participated in the ROTC and received his commission upon graduation. He spent two years in the Miami area as officer-in-charge of a recruiting station that handled all military branches. Nelson spent two years on active duty in the U.S. Army - his last rank was captain - and four years in the Army Reserves.
He returned to Melbourne after leaving the service and went to work as a practicing attorney. While attending a Key Club convention in Jacksonville, he was asked to be a last minute fill-in speaker, and he invited Bruce Smathers, his old college roommate, to attend and bring a date. Smathers brought Grace Cavert, a tall, attractive, blue-eyed blond, and the sparks flew. Cavert later let Smathers know she was interested in Nelson, and Smathers worked on Nelson to fan the romance. The pair quickly became inseparable. They married in 1972 and have two children.
Nelson and his wife hit the campaign trail right after their honeymoon, going door-to-door to build support for a statehouse run. Nelson won a seat in the Florida Legislature in 1972, where he served until 1978. He introduced one of the nation’s first cyber-crime laws and worked to stop oil drilling off the Florida coast.
He was also involved as a board member with the Brevard County 4-H Foundation. The foundation raised thousands of dollars each year to fun scholarships for deserving boys and girls participating in short courses, Florida 4-H Congress, camps, and legislature programs.
Nelson was elected to Congress as a representative from the Orlando area in 1978. In the House Nelson positioned himself as a stalwart supporter of NASA, one of the biggest employers in his district. He was made chairman of the Science, Space and Technology subcommittee in charge of overseeing the agency, effectively becoming one of the go-to legislators on space issues.
In the mid-1980s public support for manned space missions began to wane. Hoping to counter the trend, NASA decided to let civilians travel into orbit with shuttle crews. Nelson jumped at the opportunity and was one of the first people selected for the program. On Jan. 12, 1986, Nelson traveled into space on the shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist, spending six days in orbit around the Earth.
“It changed my life,” Nelson said of the experience. “In the six days that I flew, I came to see our planet in an entirely different light. Nelson wrote a book about the trip with his pastor, Jamie Buckingham, titled Mission: An American Congressman’s Voyage to Space.
At the time some observers derided Nelson’s space trip as a pointless publicity stunt, but that criticism quickly ended when the shuttle Challenger exploded 10 days after Nelson returned to Earth. Reporters flocked to Nelson’s office to hear his views on the tragedy, and he emerged as a leading figure in the efforts to reform NASA’s operations.
In 1994, he ran for Florida treasurer and insurance commissioner (a dual post in Florida) and narrowly won. Nelson took a decidedly activist approach to the office, squaring off against the insurance industry over rate hikes in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.
As a state legislator and state treasurer he opened his doors to youth who wanted to visit and learn about the state government process. He was always ready to teach 4-H youth and leaders about the processes of government. As a legislator he was a strong advocate for funding of the UF/IFAS Extension Service programs at state and federal levels.
Nelson decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2000 after then-Sen. Connie Mack announced his retirement, and won the seat. Nelson ran for re-election in 2006 and was challenged by then-Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). Nelson took 60 percent of the vote and kept his seat.
In 2008 while addressing 4-H and FFA members in the audience at the Florida State Fair, Nelson aimed to inspire them. “Today, we need more young people who understand the tremendous impact that community and public service can have in our troubled world….I feel a great sense of optimism when I meet young people with the potential and desire to make a difference in everyday life.”
He exhorted the 4-H and FFA members there to consider their courses in life and think about others. “First, I hope you will conclude with me that there has to be something in life beyond one’s own self interest. There is a lot more to life than just “me,” said Nelson.
“Second, I would ask that you in the years ahead find work that you do not view as a curse – and by living a life that you do not view as a misfortune,” he added.
“Third, I suggest that your life will be fruitless unless occasioned with unrewarded acts of kindness and love. The highest form of leadership is a servant leader. Our state and our country are counting on you, counting on you to do the good thing. And don’t ever be afraid to try,” he concluded.
Fitting words for a man who got his early start in 4-H - an organization that always encourages young people to try and make the best better.