Elisa’s Reading Nook Dedication: May 31, 2014
“These Would be my Greatest Wishes” Presented by Elisa Nelson’s brother, Jeff Nelson.
First we would like to thank everyone for coming. It means a lot that so many people would take time out of their busy lives to come and honor Elisa. Some of you have traveled a great distance and we are truly humbled. We’d also like to thank the people who have made this possible-
- Superintendent Grego,
- Principal Hawkins,
- Sue Castleman,
- as well as the School Board, Palm Harbor Middle School and their respective staffs.
Time Capsule The events of last year or so have enabled our family to go through some boxes that we had kept in the attic for over 30 years. It was quite literally a “time capsule” for a very hazy time for us that we didn’t want to remember because it was too painful. But getting that small amount of closure enabled us to start talking about “Elisa the person” rather than “Elisa the victim.” Unfortunately, because of the circumstances surrounding her death, the only memorial we had was thanks to the Palm Harbor Middle School PTA in the library and the plaque that they had installed at the old Middle School.
Going through the old boxes, I found a newspaper article from 1981 about the dedication and letters from School Board members and community leaders about having a more “fitting” memorial once the new school is opened with ideas ranging from dedicating the library to naming the new school after Elisa. I was a kid back then and I had forgotten about all of that and I thought ‘well, its been over 30 years now and nobody really cares anymore so the time for that has passed but maybe I can get the old plaque since it is sitting in an abandoned library.’ When my request got to Superintendent Grego and he became aware of the history, he said “we are going to do more than that” and they started planning ‘this.’
Mural Artist When they started talking about a mural I thought it was a great idea but I had real concerns about finding the right artist because we didn’t want something abstract or impressionistic, we wanted something the kids could look at and know what they were seeing. After a brief search, Sue Castleman said they had found the right artist and we needed to meet him. In the mean time, our friend Carolyn Homer had met an artist at a local art show and called us up and said “I found the guy.” She said his art was beautiful, the perfect style for what we were trying to do and as a kicker, he had the same birthday as Elisa.
“It’s a sign” she said, “you have to use him.” Carolyn had recently lost a brother and we had spent quite some time discussing the loss of a sibling and whether or not they would send us ‘signs.’ So now we’re thinking ‘how do we choose between these two artists not to mention that we (I) had a specific vision and who is going to accurately portray that vision. Imagine our relief when it turned out they were talking about the same guy- Steve Spathelf or locally known as Spat’s Splats. You have probably seen his work on the sides of many buildings in downtown Dunedin. We met with Steve and talked about Elisa and the things she loved and tried to convey our concept of what we wanted. What Steve took away from that conversation was nothing like I had envisioned. I am glad that it wasn’t because after seeing Steve’s vision, I think mine was kind of lame. You can see from the some of the items that Elisa was a typical little girl of the 70’s- unicorns, butterflies, tie-dye rainbows but there is a lot more here too-
Number 7 I mentioned that both Steve and Elisa had the same birthday and that was July 7. Lisa was born in 1970 which means she turned 7 of 7-7-77 so the #7 had a special significance for her. You’ll notice that there are 7 panels in the mural.
Girl Scouts You can see in the upper left corner that she was a Girl Scout. She was brave and adventurous, a member of Troop 712 of the Suncoast Council. I know that there are several of Elisa’s troopmates here, if you were in her troop, would you please raise your hand? Thank you for coming. The Girls Scouts have announced that they are going to make Troop #712 a “Legacy Troop #” so all future troops # 712 will get a special patch that is going to be made from the artwork in this mural. A few months ago the scouts dedicated a memorial brick at Camp Wai Lani and we are working on some other things at the camp.
Books and Libraries That’s why we are in here. She was fearless and loved all types of adventures, either in person, through Scouting or through books. She would always go to the library whenever she got the chance. She also loved to play teacher (she had a chalkboard where she would conduct class with neighborhood kids). She would often take those who were struggling to read, down to the neighborhood library and check out books for them.
She was an athlete Any softball players here? Back then there were no girls’ softball leagues in Palm Harbor so she played Little League Baseball and was one of the best on her team; probably because I taught her how to play. Any cheerleaders here? She loved to cheer and when we used to go to the Bucs games her favorite part was to watch the cheerleaders Any gymnasts here? She went to Apollo, which is still open and some of you may go there.
Singers and dancers- Grease Singers and Dancers? Elisa loved dancing and studied Jazz, ballet and tap at the Little Miss School of Dance. She also loved Music. Don’t judge me because it was the late 70’s and early 80’s but we’d pop in the 8 track (ask your parents about that) in and listen to-
- KC & the Sunshine Band
- Barry Manilow
- Olivia Newton John
- Grease (our version of High School Musical)
Generosity MDA- Elisa was VERY generous. Always thinking of ways to help others. She was trying to save her money to buy a 10 speed bike but could never quite get there. She would work to raise money by washing cars or cleaning her father’s office then donate all the money she earned to the MDA telethon. But my parents didn’t know it until a bill came in the mail for $17.23 because that’s all she had in her piggy bank. She always wanted to help others especially if they were kids.
Greeting Cards She loved to send cards. When I was going through the boxes in the attic I found one that she meant to send to a friend who invited her to a sleep over. It said “Dear April, Thank you for inviting me to your wild and crazy slumber party. I had a great time! Thanks again. Elisa.” I was able to track April down and send her the card. She loved to make people happy and she thought that giving them a card would let them know that someone was thinking about them and that would make them happy.
About a year after Elisa died, our mother was going through some old magazines and tucked away inside of a National Geographic were 3 signed and sealed Christmas cards that she had planned on giving us. Elisa passed away in early November. Almost two full months before Christmas. She was always thinking ahead about how to make people smile.
Animals If you haven’t noticed, Elisa loved animals. Any other animal lovers here? If we put all of the animals in the mural like the cats and goats and pigs, there wouldn’t be room for anything else. She would take in every stray pet or injured animal she found. Some of the more famous animals she had are here-
- Bugs Bunny (a wounded baby, abandoned by her mother)
- Houdini the Hamster (he got his name because he always escaped and the game was to find him before the cat did)
- Harry the Guinea Pig
- Her dog named “Pretty”
- If you read the background then you know the story but assuming you haven’t, I’ve got to tell you, Steve was very kind to the dog’s appearance. For those of you who don’t know the story it goes like this-
- One time she found a dog. He was kind of mangy looking and not very bright. He was the color of dirt, in fact, the same color as the dirt road we used to live on. In the middle of the afternoon we’d hear horns honking and the dog would be taking a nap in the middle of the road. Everyone in the neighborhood would yell “get out of the road you stupid dog.” It happened so often, he started answer to the name “Stupid.” However, no matter what that dog did, Elisa would never call him Stupid, she thought he was pretty so she called him “Pretty.” She would paint his nails and put bows in his hair but I always thought you can’t name a boy dog “Pretty,” but when we took him to the vet we had to compromise, so we combined the two names and called him “Pretty Stupid”.
Horses And what little girl doesn’t love horses? Any horse lovers here? Elisa loved horses even though she never had one. She always would write “2 horses” on her mother’s grocery list right after “bread and milk.” She once wrote a school paper titled “if I had three wishes”
If I had three wishes If I had three wishes, the first thing I would like is a horse. Then my second wish would be to have the land for it to live on and my third wish would be to have all the food to feed him. And if I had a fourth wish, I wouldn’t have to pay taxes on the land. I would like an all black horse and I would call her Black Beauty. And if I had a fifth wish I would wish that Black Beauty could talk. And that she could understand what I said those would be my greatest wishes. That is why the card says “These Would be my Greatest Wishes” because all of this represents her greatest wishes.
Tribute/impact We think Steve knocked it out of the park. This is a beautiful tribute for a little girl whose passing had arguably one of the biggest impacts on Palm Harbor in our lifetime; maybe ever in Palm Harbor. This was our Kennedy moment; our Challenger moment. Maybe more so because it didn’t happen 1,000 miles away it happened right here and directly impacted us. It was like the shattering of glass; it changed everything for all of us. But this isn’t just to ease our family’s pain and I think that is why there are so many people here today. I know that I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the impact on others until the morning of April 11th of last year when-
- we returned to our office someone had set candles and a memorial on our door step (whoever did that, thank you).
- Or few days later when a lady I didn’t recognize stopped me in a restaurant, hugged me, started crying and told me how she remembered that day so long ago.
- Or when a friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years called me out of the blue excited about the weight that he felt had been lifted off of him. We have all been carrying that weight.
- Or yesterday afternoon, when an 80 year old lady whom I’d never met, stopped by my office with tears in her eyes to tell me that she couldn’t make it to the dedication but how happy she was that this was finally happening.
But most importantly, we hope this helps Elisa’s classmates too. Losing a friend is lot to process when you are only 10, 11, 12 years old. Let alone when it happens like this. Hopefully this Reading Nook will allow all of us to focus on the good memories about Elisa. One of her friends shared with me how, when they would hang on the monkey bars, eventually one of them would hang upside down and Elisa would giggle and sing “I see London. I see France. I see someone’s underpants.” Or another who recently told me that he used to pull on her braids when she was drinking from the fountain. I thought ‘of course you did, that’s what I would have done.’ Those are the things we need to remember.
Going forward But we’re not just going to stop with a mural and a plaque. The first time I walked into this library there were alarmingly few books on the shelf. Maybe 50% at best. Kids are hard on books and budgets are tight. I thought ‘this is unacceptable’ and I told Principal Hawkins that we want to help make this the best Middle School Library around and would like this to be an ongoing tribute and try to help other children because that’s what Elisa would want.
I recently spoke with the President of the PHMS PTA in 1980 who was involved in the establishment of the initial Elisa Nelson Memorial fund to benefit the library at the old school. She was ecstatic that this memorial was finally happening and told me she was coming today. That is perfect as we announce that we are re-establishing the fund now as an ongoing entity. The PTSA and the Faculty are the torch-bearers for Elisa’s memory. They were instrumental in the original memorial at the old middle school and I hope that they will resume the role here.
National spotlight Palm Harbor was in the national spotlight for a story that doesn’t have a happy ending, but I believe we can at least make it a “happier” ending by making some good come out of this. I have met with the PTA and they have already started kicking around ideas for fundraisers for the next school year and even something to help animals, which is perfect. Right now there have been T-shirts donated to the school and 100% of the proceeds go to the library. So, thank you again for taking time out of your Saturday to come and see “Elisa’s Reading nook.” There is a weight on our hearts that will never go away. We live with it every day. But knowing that Elisa is not forgotten by her friends or her community makes that weight just a little easier to carry. I can’t tell you how much it means to us to have you all here for this. Thank you.
Post Script- Did anyone see today’s Tampa Bay Times? Elisa Nelson was on the front page again. My sister has been on the front page of the paper more than anyone I have ever met that wasn’t a politician. Today was the first time I actually enjoyed reading the article because it was about something positive. But most importantly, we hope this helps Elisa’s classmates too. Losing a friend is lot to process when you are only 10, 11, 12 years old. Let alone when it happens like this. Hopefully this Reading Nook will allow all of us to focus on the good memories about Elisa. One of her friends shared with me how, when they would hang on the monkey bars, eventually one of them would hang upside down and Elisa would giggle and sing “I see London. I see France. I see someone’s underpants.” Or another who recently told me that he used to pull on her braids when she was drinking from the fountain. I thought ‘of course you did, that’s what I would have done.’ Those are the things we need to remember.