Raymond J. Nelson was born on June 2, 1920, in Frontier, Sask., to Nels and Emma Nelson. The Depression arrived soon after, and for the family of eight, money was scarce, but their faith wasn’t. The Nelsons had been immigrants from Minnesota in 1911 and established their home on a land grant from the railroad. Mom operated a small hotel and café, while dad was a blacksmith. They were disciplined Christians, and believed that on Sundays, no one should work. Frivolous pursuits were also out of the question. But as a boy, Ray liked to play pool, much to the dismay of his dad. When Nels would catch him at a pool hall, he’d yell until Ray ran out the back door. Such stringency caused Ray to take a more moderate approach to religion, but still, says daughter Allyson, “The driving force of his life was his belief.”
Ray attended a local school, and graduated in Grade 12. After, he worked on the family land. One day, while out in the field, a pair of horses pulling harrows ran him over, but somehow he emerged unscathed. He often noted that he could have died; it was the first of several brushes with death.
In 1942, the Second World War beckoned. Ray joined the military but remained stationed in Canada, working as an assistant in the army dental corps. During that time, he dreamed a lot about what to do when he got out, and resolved to make something of himself. When he was discharged in 1946, he joined his brother Austin in Lloydminster, where he was working at Beaver Lumber. Within three years, the pair had founded their own company, Nelson Lumber. By 1952, when he married his wife, Marie, Ray had also set up Nelson Homes, a prefab housing company.
The business expanded, and soon there were offices and lumberyards throughout the region. The Nelsons built more than 30,000 homes in Western Canada. “Work was his hobby,” says Allyson. “He never intended to retire.” At night, he’d put his four children—Allyson, Glenda, Tannis and Scott—to sleep, and return to the office.
Despite this success, he often told his kids, “There’s no guarantee that we will always have money.” His son Scott says that because of his faith and those early years of poverty, “He was always concerned about those who were less fortunate.” Early in his career, in 1963, he established a charitable foundation. Five per cent of pre-tax profits at Nelson Lumber went to scholarships for Christian colleges and Bible schools. The company also donated houses to native reserves.
Ray was politically active, always considering how provincial and federal goings-on would impact his business. International issues were important to him, too. “He was prescient and raised the concern about the potential for terrorism early on,” says friend Dennis Modry, a heart surgeon. “He was Christian in his thinking and beliefs and thought the biggest clash we have coming is the clash of Western civilization against Islam.”
While Ray and Marie remained in Lloydminster, they acquired homes in Edmonton and Scottsdale, Ariz. To stay in shape, Ray swam 30 laps, twice a day. But he suffered from recurring heart problems. In 1983, he had his first bypass surgery. A few years after a second bypass, he had a heart attack in his Scottsdale swimming pool, and became a recipient for a heart transplant. He was 79 years old.
Dennis, who became his doctor when Ray was admitted to the University of Alberta Hospital, says, “It was a controversial issue, whether on not we would accept him for surgery.” There was resistance from the medical community: until then, hearts generally weren’t given to people over the age of 65, and donors were under age 55.
But Dennis managed to come up with a solution that would change policy at his hospital and beyond. “Why don’t we use older hearts on older patients?” he asked. On Dec. 27, 1999, Ray received a 55-year-old heart. He remains the oldest person in the world to have had a heart transplant.
Ray recovered fully. In 2002, he and Marie celebrated their 50th anniversary; a year later, he sold Nelson Lumber to an employee shareholder group. At the time, he had 800 employees, and $160 million in annual sales. After his transplant, Ray would often say, “Thank God for life.” But on Sept. 30, 2009, he lost Marie. “Nobody ever believed that my mom would pass away before he did,” says Scott. A year later, on Sept. 20, 2010—after 10 “bonus years”—Ray died, not from a heart complication but from kidney failure. He was 90.