A Legacy that Lives On

John Nelson and his two grandchildren

Main photo: John Nelson, E’66, mechanical engineering, MBA’78, with his grandchildren, Emma and Owen.

This article originally appeared in Engineering @ Northeastern magazine, Spring 2021.

The College of Engineering was sad to learn of the recent passing of alumnus John R. Nelson. He will be remembered for his scientific achievements during a nearly 40-year career and also his commitment to philanthropy, including a recently endowed engineering scholarship fund at Northeastern.

John grew up on Fairview Street in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. One of nine children and the son of a Boston Police Department patrolman, he loved building and fixing things and was destined for an engineering career―but funds for college were limited. At the time, Northeastern’s coop program offered the perfect means for John to finance his education. He graduated in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and then earned an MBA in 1978 from Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

John’s decision to attend Northeastern charted the course for his own life, but it also began a tradition that now spans three generations. John’s younger brother, George, graduated in 1971 with a BS in Business Administration (BSBA) and a focus on accounting. In 1990, John’s son, Chris, also earned a BSBA toward a career in marketing and, in 1992, his son, Scott, graduated with a BS in Civil Engineering. And two months before he died, John learned that his grandson, Owen, would attend Northeastern to study architecture and design. He was delighted. “We Huskies have to stick together,” he said.

A far-reaching scientific impact

After graduation, John worked as an engineer at Itek and Cognos, two Boston-area companies that developed optics for defense and aerospace applications.

In 1976, John joined Waters Corporation, an analytical instrumentation company headquartered in Milford, Massachusetts. He found his professional home there, embarking on a 30-year career that included serving as Vice President of Research and Development, and eventually Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. While at Waters, he led the development of cutting-edge hardware and software that supported the emergence of biomedical, life science, and pharmaceutical innovations.

John was recognized by NASA for his contributions to the Viking 76 Lander, which touched down on Mars in July 1976. His contributions included hardware development, fabrication, and testing for the camera system. “Few people are able to leave a legacy on another planet,” says his son Chris. “And my Dad would’ve been pleased by the coincidence of the Perseverance Rover landing on Mars on February 18, just minutes after his wake started.”

A spirit of giving and discovery

John also made an enormous and lasting impact here on Earth. The recently established Nelson Family 1966 Scholarship at Northeastern will help undergraduates in the College of Engineering finance their education.

“My Dad traveled the world, rafting in the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, kayaking Alaskan inlets, exploring African savannahs and riding a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti at sunrise,” Chris recounts. “But he never forgot his roots and how he’d struggled to fund his own college education. He created the Nelson ‘66 Scholarship to help others achieve their own dreams.”

John’s philanthropy didn’t end there. Together with his late wife Judy, they established a Foundation with 25+ years of major gifts to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Boston Children’s Hospital, the Boston Museum of Science, and St. Jude’s. “He was a Cub Scout den leader, youth hockey coach, and my algebra tutor. A loving son, brother, husband, father and grandfather, he was always thinking of others,” Chris explains. “He will be greatly missed, but we’re incredibly proud of the vast contributions he made during his lifetime.”


Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering