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Edward G. Nelson, business leader and philanthropist, dies

Apr. 6, 2016, 5:06 PM

Edward G. Nelson

Edward G. Nelson, a prominent businessman and Vanderbilt University Board of Trust emeritus member who worked tirelessly to strengthen U.S.-Japanese relations, died April 5 after a long illness. He was 84.

Nelson joined the Board of Trust in 1979 and was named an emeritus trustee in 2007. He also served for 22 years as chairman of the university’s Medical Center Board.

“Words can never fully capture the impact of Ed Nelson’s extraordinary leadership and philanthropic spirit on our community,” said Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “We are saddened for the loss of this dear friend to Vanderbilt, but take comfort knowing that his vision will benefit our campus and Tennessee for years to come. Lydia and I extend our deepest sympathy to Carole and their family.”

Nelson was one of Middle Tennessee’s most prominent businessmen and one of its best assets in attracting Japanese business to the midstate. A 2002 article in The Tennessean called Nelson “the go-to guy for advice and counsel on Japanese business affairs.” He was involved in major deals to bring companies such as Nissan and Bridgestone to Tennessee and was named several times to Business Nashville magazine’s “Nashville’s 100 Most Powerful” list.

Nelson also led efforts to establish the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at Vanderbilt.

His ease in bridging Tennessee and Japan came from a stint in U.S. Army intelligence following his graduations from Montgomery Bell Academy and Sewanee: The University of the South, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

As part of his military service, he was sent to Japan for three weeks of training and remained there serving as a resident agent from 1953 to 1955 in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. It was there that he became fluent in Japanese – a skill that would later serve him and Tennessee well in his efforts to foster economic ties between the two governments and business leaders.

He started his career in the financial services industry with Nashville investment banking firm Clark, Landstreet and Kilpatrick, becoming vice president of the company in 1955.

Nelson joined Commerce Union Bank as vice president in 1964 and become its president in 1972. Ten years later he was named chairman and chief executive officer of Commerce Union Corporation. In 1985, he resigned to start the merchant banking investment firm Nelson Capital Corp.

In 1988, the Japanese government named Nelson an honorary consul general of Japan in Nashville. A decade later, His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, Akihito decorated Nelson with one of the country’s highest honors, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, for his work in U.S.-Japanese relations. Nelson had played an important role in the opening that year of the Japanese consulate in Nashville.

Other honors for Nelson include the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award, the Leukemia Society Service Award and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Distinguished Service Award.

Nelson was the son of the late Charles Nelson Sr. and Pauline Prentiss Nelson. He is survived by his wife, Carole Minton Nelson; daughters Carole Nelson Kirkland, Emme Nelson Baxter and Ellen Prentiss Nelson; and four grandchildren. He is survived also by a sister, Mary Elizabeth Nelson.

Visitation will be Friday, April 8, from 1 to 3 p.m. at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Hampton Hall. The service will begin at 3 p.m. at St. George’s.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to St. George’s Episcopal Church, Harpeth Hall School, Montgomery Bell Academy and Alive Hospice.

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