For years as a guidance counselor at St. Petersburg High, Carolyn Harris Nelson helped scores of students navigate their way toward their next steps in life.
One of them was Ryan Halstead, now an assistant principal at the school, who recalls that Mrs. Nelson played an integral role in his decision to go out of state for one year of college.
Not only did she help him figure out the finances, she pushed him to break out of his comfort zone. All of his friends were going to school in Florida.
"It was a leap of faith I was taking," Halstead said. "She was very assurant about why me taking a risk is really worth it."
Mrs. Nelson died June 19 after losing her battle with a rare neurological disease. She was 20 days short of her 75th birthday. A service is scheduled for Saturday.
"She was a very caring person," said Richard Nelson, her husband of 54 years. "Whether you’re a family member or a stranger, she cared about you and did her very best to make sure you were having a good day."
After attending St. Petersburg High, she went on to the University of Florida and after graduation taught American government and Latin to high school students, working at Palm Beach Gardens High and Pinellas Park High.
When her children, Kent and Courtney, entered middle school, she decided to stay home to see them through their formative years, later helping guide them through the college application process.
Her family joked that her kids served as guinea pigs for her later career. Mrs. Nelson went back to school to get her master’s degree in counseling and returned to education as the first full-time guidance counselor for the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High.
Halstead, her former student, said Mrs. Nelson was "ahead of her times." He said she made sure kids were exposed to a variety of colleges and that the academic environments at those schools would fit their needs.
Susan Farias, who recently retired as the IB program’s coordinator, said Mrs. Nelson was a rich person — not monetarily but in spirit.
"She seemed to be very diligent in her job and very passionate," Farias said. "But she was also very kind and an open person you could go to."
Halstead wasn’t the most studious. Sometimes he skipped school. And every time he was caught, Mrs. Nelson would guide him to reflect about whether that was the best decision for him. But she never yelled and never forced anything. She was firm but fair.
Mrs. Nelson later worked as a guidance counselor at Dixie Hollins High, but she is well-remembered at St. Petersburg High, where the annual Carolyn Nelson Award recognizes the "ideal IB student" in the senior class.
Kent Nelson said he thought of his mom as outgoing, kind and opinionated. But he never felt like he was being told what to do. She always just guided.
Her daughter, Courtney, said everything Mrs. Nelson did was with her heart. She put herself before others and nurtured those around her.
Mrs. Nelson aimed to teach those qualities to her six grandchildren, including one who graduated from the IB program at St. Petersburg High and two others who are currently enrolled there. Kent Nelson said she was always singing the ABCs and reading to them — ensuring they would learn to love learning — just as she did.
Contact McKenna Oxenden at [email protected] Follow @mack_oxenden