By Greg Scott
CARBONDALE, Ill. — Sandra Nelson Brown wanted to memorialize her great aunt for serving as an advocate for children in the school system, church, and community. The former Tamms resident and her family figured the most appropriate way to accomplish this was to provide financial aid for a young student who has aspirations of attending college.
The Nelson family established the Helen Nelson Davis Scholarship Fund through the Southern Illinois University Foundation. Eligible applicants must be graduates of a high school in the southern Illinois counties of Alexander or Pulaski, with a grade point average of 3.0 or above (on a 4.0 scale). Applicants must also major in education at SIUC with plans of pursuing a teaching career, much like Helen Davis.
The College of Education and Human Services Scholarship Committee will determine the recipient and amount of the award on an annual basis.
Brown, an employee of the Illinois State Police in Springfield, says: “My great aunt was a firm believer in education. She spent her entire life supporting young people in the school system, the church and community. I just thought this was an appropriate way to honor her memory.”
Helen M. Davis was a lifelong elementary school educator who earned two degrees from Southern. She completed a two-year teaching certificate program at the University in 1930. Davis subsequently received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education in 1944 and 1954, respectively.
“Aunt Helen was helpful in getting kids interested in reading and learning our history,” Brown says. “One of my favorite memories was Aunt Helen organizing programs during Black History Month. She wanted us as young adults to be educated about Black History and those who made contributions to our society before us. We were also asked to conduct presentations as part of her programs.”
While Davis didn’t have children of her own, she instilled the importance of education to Brown and her siblings. Five of the nine children in the Nelson family graduated from Southern. Cindy Nelson is a 1987 SIUC radio-television graduate and works for CNN in Atlanta; Marva Nelson received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English in 1996 and 1999, respectively, and is an instructor at Parkland Community College in Champaign; Gloria Wilkins is a 2001 administration of justice graduate and serves as a juvenile detention counselor in St. Louis; and Karen Warren, a 1991 political science graduate, subsequently attended law school at Saint Louis University and stayed in the metropolitan area to practice law. Brown’s brother, Harold “Skip” Nelson, a retired Illinois State Police officer, received an associate degree in law enforcement in 1978 from Southern. He subsequently received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern Illinois University.
Brown herself is a 1984 graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, where she studied interdisciplinary studies with a primary focus on chemistry and biology. She later received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
When asked why she didn’t attend Southern, Brown laughs: “I visited SIU, but received a full scholarship to Shawnee Community College, and later, to SEMO. But obviously, I have connections to the University through my great aunt and siblings. It has meant a great deal to my family.”
Brown’s parents, Harold and Claudia Nelson, live in Tamms, and it was important for the scholarship to support students in her family’s home counties. “Alexander and Pulaski Counties are two of the most economically-challenged counties in the state. We figured a deserving kid from one of those counties could at least receive some financial aid.”
Rickey N. McCurry, vice chancellor for institutional advancement and chief executive officer of the SIU Foundation, says Brown’s family is providing a fitting tribute to Davis.
“Countless young people clearly benefitted from Helen Davis’ positive influence. Mentors and teachers in our respective communities are invaluable,” McCurry says. “I can’t think of a better honor for a lifelong educator than to establish a scholarship in her name to benefit someone seeking an opportunity. The University is certainly appreciative of Sandra Brown and her family for helping a young student pursue their educational endeavors.”