University News

Forever Home: John Nelson

May 23, 2019


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Video by Phil Weiss, University Television

NOTE: This is the fifth installment in a series, "Forever Home," which features video interviews with WIU alumni who have chosen to make Macomb (and/or WIU) their home after graduation.

By Jodi Pospeschil, MA '15

MACOMB, IL – When John Nelson began taking classes at Western Illinois University, he had a background of sales and community service in his blood…literally. As the owner of Nelson's clothing store in downtown Macomb, John now works alongside his father, Red, and his son, Ian.

The store has been a pillar of Macomb's downtown square through four generations of Nelson men. John's grandfather, Victor, started the business in 1936, and the tradition was carried on by his Uncle Bob and his father, Red, who is now 96 and continues to work six days a week in the clothing store doing custom tailoring.

John, a 1981 graduate of WIU, with a bachelor's degree in business (marketing), began working at the store in 1976. As a Macomb native, he gives back to the community and to the University in countless ways and, in 2016, he was presented with the Town and Gown Award by the WIU Alumni Association, for his service and his support of many University projects.

Just as John began exploring college options during his senior year of high school, he lost his brother to a car accident and his mother to cancer, and he made the decision to stay in the area with his father.

"I've never looked back; it was a great choice," he said. "It helped me become everything I am today."

As a youngster, John said he initially had no interest in joining the family's clothing store as a future career. He said it was oceanography that initially drew his interest as a career choice and as a high school job.

"As I became a teenager, I started becoming more and more interested in fish – I'd grown up fishing all my life," he said. "For three years in high school, I sold tropical fish, I ended up doing the buying of the tropical fish and doing the payroll for the business, while I was a teenager. I would have actually loved to have pursued marine biology, but they kept saying you had to show your work on all your math work and I just hate doing that. If I had to show my work, I never did well in that aspect."

Even though John transitioned to major in business, he maintained his love of water and being with fish by serving four years as the president of the University's SCUBA club. As Nelson progressed through the requirements of a business degree, he continued to work at the clothing store, but believed he would end up in Chicago after graduation.

"As I got into the years, while I was in college working there, about my junior year crept this little thing called pride," he said. "That's something I never had in the family business, it was just always taken for granted that it was just there. About my junior year that thing of pride started setting in and that's when I thought, 'I may not actually be leaving here,' and that's when my perspective changed."

At WIU, John connected with the late Ben Schiek, who taught small business classes on campus and owned an office supply store in downtown Macomb. It was Schiek's classes that struck a chord with John and became his favorites because they were theory-related and made the most sense with Nelson's career path.

It was the early years of working at the store that taught John that relationships with customers are at the core. In the 1970s, he saw customers wait extra time for his uncle or his father to wait on them, which moved from an irritation to an epiphany about the business.

"It was more than a decade later until it hit me, that's when a business like ours succeeds," he said. "It's the relationships. I didn't understand what that meant…it's even more important today."

As John began his career in the store, he began to freshen up some of Nelson's product lines, a practice he continues today and has brought many WIU-related products into the store, such as custom neckties. The purple ties, some with the "W" logo and some with a bulldog, are produced in Illinois and made by the Lee Allison Collection in Chicago.

"We donated the first 10 of those to alumni programs for them to use with their donors," said Nelson. "We are always looking for products with some kind of connection."

Another of those products is "Frank's Pants," the design of Macomb resident Frank Herbert, who graduated from high school with Nelson.

As a young businessman, Nelson said he realized that Macomb and WIU are interconnected and dependent on each other for success.

"I've always viewed it as one body and two major organs," he said. "You're not going to make it without one or the other. They both have to be there. It's when they're both functioning that they both achieve the most. I don't feel a way to separate the community and the University."

It's those community connections that help keep Nelson plugged in to the WIU campus and its employees.

"It's the interactions with so many people that are on staff or in departments that help keep me abreast and keep me wanting to be a part of things," he said. "It has been less about what I want the business to become or my vision for the business – I still feel it's my responsibility to maintain the business my grandfather started and my father and uncle put into it," he said. "If the business were to fail, I would feel I failed my previous generations."

John's son, Ian, who also attended WIU, has moved the business in a new, virtual direction by adding social media components and the option of selling online, which opens the store to a national audience. Ian manages the store with John.

"That's more of our growth area," he said. "That will definitely be the 2019 Nelson's."

Since graduation, John has given back to WIU in a myriad of ways, including supporting WIU Athletics and its annual Purple and Gold event. He has also been involved with the Performing Arts Society (PAS) for many years, including the annual gala and wine tasting events. He also allows for the painting of his storefront each year during the "Paint the Town" portion of WIU's Homecoming celebration.

John also gives back to the city, serving on the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Board and the Macomb Rotary Club. He has previously served on the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce board and served twice as president of Macomb Downtown Development.

For more information about WIU, visit wiu.edu.

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (JK-Pospeschil@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations