James Nelson outside Sprague High school. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This profile is part of a series on Class of 2019 high school graduates. Salem Reporter asked high schools in Salem and Keizer to select an outstanding graduate – someone who accomplished something significant, whether through art, academics, advocacy or overcoming obstacles to graduate.

When James Nelson was elected president of the Sprague High School choir, he didn’t know he was in for one of the hardest years in the ensemble’s history.

Nelson ran uncontested for the job at the end of his junior year and assumed his duties as a senior. He was thrust into a larger leadership role after choir director David Brown’s son, Aaron, took his own life in September.

A choir president normally fills in when the director is absent, Brown said. That rarely happens, but after his son’s death, he took a three-week leave. The choir’s fall concert was just two weeks away, and no one was sure if they’d be able to pull it off.

Nelson called Brown right away and told the director he’d lead the choir through activities to process Aaron’s death and grieve as a group.

“As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘They’re going to be okay,’” Brown said.

Nelson downplayed his own role, saying many students stepped up.

“We all made a conscious effort to be there for each other,” he said. “Being together helped heal our wounds.”

With help from volunteer directors from other schools, the show went on as planned.

“The fact that our fall concert happened at all is due in large part to James,” Brown said.

Nelson grew up in South Salem, attending Wright Elementary School and Judson Middle School before coming to Sprague. He started singing in school choirs in fourth grade and especially enjoys German songs because of their structure and intensity.

At Sprague, he took to the stage, playing Perchik in last year’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.

“That was kind of a big leap for me, but I’m glad I did it because it was super fun,” he said.

James Nelson on stage as Gomez Addams during a Sprague musical theater production. (Courtesy/James Nelson)

In November, he took a main role as Gomez Addams in the school production of The Addams Family musical.

“I enjoyed playing him because I could just be weird,” Nelson said, noting that as rehearsals went on, he slowly adopted Gomez’s accent more and more in his day-to-day speech. He likes the way theater can bring out a different side of people, he said.

“It was a role that was made for him,” Brown said.

Nelson is well-liked at Sprague, where he can’t walk down the hall without a few classmates greeting him or complimenting a recent haircut, but soft-spoken about his own accomplishments.

He was coordinator of Sprague’s annual Oly Pageant, a year-long fundraiser for the Oregon Health & Science University Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland. Twelve seniors compete for the title of Mr. or Ms. Olympian, trying to outdo each other in fundraising.

“Some people get pretty creative with it,” he said with a grin. Activities this year included “flocking” - having people pay to cover a classmate’s lawn in flamingo lawn ornaments, or to buy immunity from being flocked themselves.

This year’s efforts raised $50,000, Nelson said. As part of his duties, he traveled to the hospital to see how staff create a kid-friendly environment for school and other activities.

“It was pretty cool to see,” he said.

Nelson is looking forward to a summer break and is working at Ace Hardware. In the fall, he’ll continue his education at Chemeketa Community College, where he plans to study nursing.

It’s been an interest since he broke his leg in seventh grade and spent time recovering in the hospital, where he was impressed by the staff.

“I loved how helpful they were,” he said. He considered being a surgeon, but decided he’d start with nursing, which has more direct contact with patients, and see where that takes him.

“I get to work with the patients and get to know them,” he said.

Nelson won’t be singing the bass part in a choir next year, an absence he said will be strange. The group is tight-knit and has traveled to British Columbia and around the region for competitions. Nelson refers to Brown simply as “DB.”

“It’s really cool to see how far we’ve come” from the start of the year, he said. “I’m really proud of everyone in choir.”

Brown said Nelson’s quiet, humble leadership have set him up for success beyond Sprague.

“That kind of leadership is not found very often in someone that young,” he said. “He helps kids want to be better.”

James Nelson poses in front of the Sprague High School choir trophy case. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Other graduates

McKay senior graduating on time despite starting senior year with half the credits needed

Blanchet grad heading to selective Florence Academy of Art hopes to make career of oil painting

South Salem grad will spend summer studying cancer drug delivery before heading to Yale

After nearly dropping out, West Salem grad earns full ride to WOU

Aspiring engineer Beatriz Perez graduating from Teen Parent Program

Friends since elementary school, North Salem grads enlist in Marine Corps together

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

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