Steps To Follow: Denise Nelson Nash ‘76

by Anne Dullaghan

Dancer, teacher, and would-be archaeologist, wife, mother of two, ninth-grade room parent, Caltech director of public events, community volunteer, San Marino Women of the Year—meet Denise Nelson Nash.

“I’ve always looked for a way to take everything I’m interested in and pull it together with some sort of common thread,” she says.

And pull it together she has, weaving a lifelong interest in learning and a passion for performance art with a true commitment to helping children. “I love kids–that’s my weakness,” she admits. “And I really love high school kids. For a lot of people, high schoolers may be intimidating or tough, but I find them very stimulating. One of the first things I started at Caltech was the Cultural Expedition Program. We secured donations to underwrite tickets and buses to bring kids with limited opportunities to experience live performances. And the letters that I get from these kids would bring tears to you eyes. They talk about how it’s the first time they’ve seen a live performance, how nice it was that they received a “Responsibilities as an AUdience member” sheet. Because if you’ve never been to a live performance, you don’t know that you’re not supposed to talk, or to get up and down, that you should turn your cell phone off, or how to dress.”

What started it all was a small book about the lives of dancers. “My mother put me in dance classes when I was four years old because I had so much energy,” says Denise. “I was always this little creative being. My mother bought me a book that featured portraits of dancers and I’ve kept it all these years. I must have read it cover to cover a hundred times when I was a girl because I had this dream that I could be a dancer. My mother had some different ideas–parents always do–so I knew that being in the performing arts was something that my parents probably didn’t have in mind for me. But it was my passion, my dream. When I first arrived at Scripps, I thought I’d be pre-med. But dance had always been center in my life.”

While at Scripps, Denise continued to explore dance, combining her performing arts studies with history. ” I studied history and psychology–called social studies–with a major in dance,” she says. “My senior these was on the history of black dance in America.” After receiving her master of fine arts in dance from the University of Michigan, Denise then went on to do coursework in exercise physiology.

Next to dance, one of Denise’s other dreams was to pursue archaeology. Last year, Denise and her son, Miles, now a West Point cadet, embarked on a dual journey that more than satisfied both their interests.

“Archaeology was always something I wanted to do, and Miles has a passion for the military,” she says. “We went on an Earth Watch expedition and helped to excavate a Roman fort in northern England. It was the most phenomenal experience. With archaeology, the wonderful part of doing a dig is that there’s a human connection that goes on, as well as a connection to the past. You’re with this group of people, you’re troweling at a 45-degree angle and it’s very slow going. You’re talking to people, getting to know them. They’re sharing their experiences wit you. It’s a real study in human interaction that was everything I expected it to be. And for my son, to be able to be there in the midst of history–it was the perfect time that we could spend together.

“Now my daughter, Tshema, is waiting in the wings. She wants to go to Australia and scuba dive the Great Barrier Reefs. That’s been her dream, and Earth Watch has a reef survey expedition. As soon as she turns 16, that what we’re going to do.”

Another important the that Denise has woven throughout her life is community involvement. “Growing up, my parents instilled a sense of community in us,” she recalls. “My grandparents were the same way. Both of my parents are from small towns in the South. In those towns, you don’t really call it community service, it’s just what you do–you help your neighbors out. They continued that when they came to California, and we were involved in a lot of different organizations. My husband and I have also instilled that sense of service in our kids.” In recognition for her scope of work in the community, including her role as president of the Tournament of Roses Foundation, Denise was chosen by Congressman Adam Schiff as San Marino Woman of the Year for 2002.

Adds Denise: “I love what I do with the Tournament of Roses Foundation. To be on the giving end and see how the different agencies and organizations benefit from foundation grants is so inspiring. We help a number of organizations, such as those that provide art services so the kids’ lives are enriched. They’re able to see the beauty in life and can learn other skills like patience, listening, or being an observer as opposed to to always a participant. For me, being on that end of thins is special.”

Denise has also focused her many energies toward helping Scripps provide a rich, culturally diverse education for its students. She is a member of several key committees and is chair of the recently established Samella Lewis Scholarship committee. The scholarship honors Dr. Lewis, an internationally recognized painter, art historian, and educator. It awards a scholarship to an African American student on the basis of several criteria: scholastic achievement, character, and leadership qualities. Moreover, Denise supports the school’s efforts to recruit and retain African American students. Seth serves on the Alumnae?Student Diversity Committee, and participates in numerous College recruitment activities, as well as generously hosts Scripps” African American students at her home.

It’s been a lot of hard work, combined with a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time. But mostly, says Denise, “I’ve had a really fun life. I wrote in my high school yearbook that my dream was to become a dance, teach dace, to have a dance school and give back to the community. I have been able to do every thing that I’ve set out to do. Not everyone can say that they’ve been able to do that. But I’ve been fortunate. Every time I’ve been a able to accomplish something that I set out to do, I find a new goal to set.”