Tom Mattingly: Sharon Nelson touched lives of many

It had to have been an exciting time in the early hours of Saturday, July 17, 1948, when Mickie and Lindsey Nelson welcomed the arrival of their first daughter, Sharon, at St. Mary's Hospital in Knoxville.

Lindsey later wrote that he bought a box of cigars at Blaufeld's on Gay Street emblazoned with the news, "IT'S A GIRL!"

"I had my chest out a foot," he said.

Sometime the next week, the pediatrician called Lindsey into his office for a major dose of news that "sent me away in a shambles."

The word came that Sharon was "irrevocably retarded," to use the verbiage of the day.

"Her learning capabilities were severely damaged."

Then came the final blow, one meant to be consoling: "Fortunately, these children do not live very long."

Lindsey admitted to be confounded about the choice of terminology, the use of the word "fortunately." The prognosis was six years.

Maybe.

"Sharon might have been retarded, but she was ours," Lindsey wrote. "And she was little, fragile, and very dear. Deep inside we acknowledged to ourselves that severe signs of retardation might show up later, but for now she was a little baby girl, and we loved her. We would always love her, and a doctor years later would say, 'Mickie reached down, pulled her up by the bootstraps, and made a person out of Sharon.' "

Sharon Nelson beat the odds, living 62 years and 214 days, dying on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, at her apartment in the Supportive Living Section near the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga. That followed a courageous battle with Alzheimer's disease.

"She depended on Lindsey so much," said former Knoxville Journal sports editor Ben Byrd, a close friend of the Nelson family since the 1930s. "He was so devoted to her. She was much sharper than people gave her credit for. She had a good, quick mind."

At Lindsey's burial service at Polk Memorial Gardens in Columbia, Tenn., Byrd recalled reaching out to Sharon under the funeral tent.

"I'm fine," she said. "I'm doing well."

"My sister could hold her own in any situation," sister Nancy Wyszynski said. "One of the worst possible sins was to have bad manners. She could negotiate the most complicated table setting with the right nod from Dad and knew the words to most songs of most classic Broadway musicals. She could shake hands with the best of the best and loved cashing her paycheck and buying you a soda."

The Columbia Daily Herald obituary noted that she "enjoyed traveling, rooting for the New York Mets and the Tennessee Vols, watching classic Broadway musicals, playing Uno and spending time with her family. Sharon profoundly touched the lives of those who knew her."

That final sentence was a for-sure understatement.

Roy Exum, former executive vice-president of the Chattanooga News-Free Press, well remembered the Orange Grove years.

"Every time I checked on Sharon in the years that followed, things were always wonderful. She was happy, content, and loved. Lindsey visited often until he couldn't any longer.

"She fit in fine and never wanted for anything. She had a family. That was huge for a mentally challenged person."

A dominant memory of Sharon Nelson came on April 23, 1993, when the University of Tennessee named its baseball stadium after one of its most famous alums.

Accompanied by Sharon and his sister, Mary Sue Pennington of Columbia, Lindsey was honored in the pre-game ceremonies that sealed the naming of "Lindsey Nelson Stadium."

It was in the middle of the second inning that the public address announcer asked the afternoon's trivia question.

"For what two major league teams did Lindsey Nelson broadcast during his career?"

On hearing the announcement, Sharon, one of two Nelson daughters Lindsey wrote about so affectionately in his autobiography, looked at her aunt, and said, as only a daughter can, "That's my dad."

"Then there was the time that Dad and Sharon were flying to Tennessee, and the gentleman in the seat in front of Sharon reclined his seat into her lunch," Nancy recalled. " She looked at my Dad and said one of her funny phrases, 'I am going to belt him.' Dad laughed and said, 'Please don't belt him.'

"The gentleman was Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion of the world at the time. Sharon did not add him to the Sharon Nelson fan club. After all, he had 'bad manners.' "

Over the years, Lindsey possessed the gift of eloquence about the things in life that are most important.

"One of my greatest blessings is that of having Sharon for a daughter."

The residents of Orange Grove will hold a memorial service beginning at 1 p.m. March 16, at the Center, 615 Derby Street, Chattanooga, TN 37404.

Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor. His e-mail is tjmshm@comcast.net.

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Comments » 6

alvol writes:

Great Article.

mercuryvol writes:

Thanks always to Mattingly-he reminds me that the day to day happenings are not neccessarily the most important things in the traditions of the University.What a great university it has been a privilege to be a part of.

VOLliven2it writes:

Thanks Tom for an article about a very special lady. Her life and legacy bear witness to that fact. May all who read it be inspired.

wofford writes:

Thank you for a wonderful story.

Jaywine writes:

Great article!!

easleychuck writes:

Thank you for sharing this article.

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