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Lifetime Member Spotlight: Shirley Nelson (LWV 1967 - 2024 and who’s counting?)

Shirley was born in 1933 near Puget Sound in the very small town of La Conner, Washington, 60 miles north of Seattle and 60 miles south of Vancouver, Canada and lived in the same house (divided) with her father’s parents.  That was her father’s reward for running the commercial chicken ranch east of La Conner.  She had a sister, two years younger.  Shirley loved school and after six years of good teachers moved with her family to a new house where another sister and her brother were born, and she entered a much larger school in the town of Mount Vernon, the county seat. She continued to enjoy school (most days) and graduated as Valedictorian in a class of 115 students.  

Shirley had discovered journalism in high school and attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon for a well-thought-of journalism professor, and she wanted to learn from the best.  Shirley met Milt in that class, discovering many things in common, though his second year he changed his major to theology and wanted to change schools to study with a professor he had met over the summer.  Milt’s goal was to become a Methodist minister.     

By early summer of 1953, they had confided their intentions to both sets of parents and bought three rings, announcing their official engagement before transferring to the College (now University) of Puget Sound in Tacoma as upper class students (juniors).  Milt was seriously pursuing training for the ministry so Shirley changed her major to Religious Education, not the best choice because she should have stayed with journalism, as writing was her favorite thing to do.  They were married in Mount Vernon, Washington in August of 1954 and graduated from CPS the following spring.  After three years at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California,  they spent various amounts of time in different towns in Oregon where Milt was the Methodist Minister and she was known as the “Minister’s Wife”.  

In June 1967, they moved to Medford with their three young sons, where Milt was one of three ministers of the Methodist Church, and Shirley joined the two organizations she was active in for many years.  One was the Storytelling Guild (a service of the Jackson County Public Library) and the local League of Women Voters where she served on the Board.   She loved both organizations, and worked hard in both.  In 1969, they adopted an African-American girl who was just turning five.  

In 1970, the Medford League President asked Shirley if she would go to the National LWV Convention in her stead, and Milt told her she should go and he would manage their four small children.  She went, actually said a few words on the convention floor about a proposed study, and - except for the Kent State College shooting by federal troops - had a good time.  Also in 1970, Milt’s church job ended and they decided to stay in Medford to let their children finish school in one place, so he worked for various social service organizations and for a time, at the County, always involved in helping people.  He mentored Vista volunteers for several years. 

Shirley was hired as a classroom aide in a second grade class, an idea she had always resisted, but watching and assisting the veteran second grade teacher interacting with the students changed her mind. The following summer and the next year she attended Southern Oregon College in Ashland to earn enough credits for her Oregon Teaching Certificate. She was hired as an aide in a North Medford elementary school.  When their children were growing up, they all camped in national or state parks, and in 1976 for the country’s 200th birthday and the oldest son’s high school graduation, they traveled cross-country with their tent trailer to visit Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., a memorable trip that was the last they made with the whole family. 

In the fall of 1976 Shirley was hired as an elementary teacher and continued for eighteen years.  Wanting to keep her League involvement, Shirley started an evening unit in the Nelson living room.  Two friends who were also teachers lived nearby and walked to the meetings.  Topics were announced in the newspaper and sometimes several people, including some men, came to discuss important issues involving the community.  Milt was sitting in the family room on the other side of a closed door, watching television.  He realized he was missing something and started to attend the meetings.  Milt probably joined the League of Women Voters in 1979 or 1980 because both he and Shirley gathered signatures for the ballot measure petition to make Oregon the first state in the union to Vote by Mail in all elections.

One of the first issues they studied together was air quality.  The Rogue Valley has historically grown wonderful fruit crops, and to avoid freezing during the winter, the pear orchards were heated by large metal pot chimneys burning oil that created smog at night.  

In 1979, for their 25th wedding anniversary, Shirley and Milt went overseas for the first time, where they visited England.  That led to a year as an Exchange Teacher there from 1983-84, and then another year in Australia from 1991-92.  Of course, they explored much of each country, plus traveling to neighboring countries as much as possible during school breaks.  

When Shirley retired at 61 and Milt at 62, they sold their Medford house (the children were grown and gone) and moved to the coastal town of Port Orford.  They had a new custom-built house overlooking the ocean waiting for them. They became active in LWV of Curry County during their nineteen-year residence, each taking a turn at a two-year presidency and other positions on the board.  


Shirley was Voter Service Chair for Curry County for several years, arranging candidate forums during major elections, usually held three nights in a row in Port Orford, Gold Beach and Brookings.  Serious candidates participated in all three.  Shirley arranged the meetings and often acted as the Moderator.  Milt often served as Time Keeper.  Each of those towns had monthly unit meetings, and LWV Curry County Board would meet with the units from time to time, alternately.  Shirley led some studies for League members, and both Nelsons usually attended state League conventions and councils.  Shirley served a term on the League of Women Voters of Oregon Board during that time. 

They had a busy “Retirement 1” as they also volunteered in historic preservation and interpretation at Cape Bianco Lighthouse, the historic 1898 pioneer Victorian Hughes House and the Coast Guard Life-saving Station.  They traveled, visiting or at least driving through all 50 states and most of the Canadian provinces.  They also visited Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, some Caribbean islands, Ecuador, about 25 European countries and the British Isles.  In the Port Orford years, Shirley published several small books, mostly historical.  

They made some great friends through the League of Women Voters, though losing some along the way at this advanced age.  They enjoy living in an independent senior apartment building “This is Retirement 2” in Florence, and some years Shirley conducts ballot measure forums, LWV-style, in the building or elsewhere in the community.  Shirley and Milt both attended the League’s 100th birthday celebration in Salem right before the doors slammed shut in March 2020 due to COVID-19.  

Shirley’s message for members newer to the League:  YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!  If you care about this country, doing nothing is a mistake.  Attend rallies for people you trust running for office, check things out on Vote411, help get out the vote, and keep studying League issues.  Call it bias, but Shirley believes NOBODY conducts candidate forums as well as the League of Women Voters.   

A lot happens in 90 years!

The pictures above were taken close to the 100th anniversary of League of Women Voters during the COVID pandemic.  Shirley is standing on the back balcony of Florence’s history museum, one of several speakers looking down at a good-sized crowd of people standing in the parking lot below. 


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