As Shirley Nelson was settling in at Wesley Place on Honeysuckle, she was immediately recognized by a former student, William Armstrong, who also lives at the community. Mr. Armstrong was one of the first students that she taught in her very first job as a young teacher in Cottonwood, Alabama.
“I taught juniors & seniors that year, and I had turned 20 just before school started,” Shirley recalls. “I’m thinking that I’m too young to teach these grades, but the principal said, ‘No, you’re not, you’ll have their attention. You’ll be fine.’ In reality, I didn’t know what side of the desk to sit on.”
Shirley taught business education, sometimes teaching English as well. Her teaching career followed her husband’s coaching career, taking her from those early days at Cottonwood to Dozier for 2 years, until getting an opening at Zion Chapel near Troy where she and her husband were living. She spent one year at Troy, then went to Hartford, and from there to Florala for one year before moving to Dothan. She then taught at Headland for 1 year, then Wicksburg, and then settled in at Rehobeth School, where she taught for 18 years until her retirement.
“I didn’t want to retire, but we had a motor home,” said Shirley. “My husband said he didn’t think we would ever go anywhere if I didn’t quit teaching. So I did and we traveled a while.”
Shirley’s late husband was an educator as well, and a beloved coach in the community – Coach Charles Wilton Nelson, who retired from Cottonwood in 1988. Coach Nelson had his own encounter with a former student at Wesley Place on Honeysuckle – the community’s medical director, Dr. Edwin Morriss.
Shirley chuckled at the memory as she relayed the details of the reunion of coach and player. “They put Wilton in a bed, and Edwin Morriss came in and picked up a chair and plopped it down and said, ‘Hey, Coach how are you today?’ I looked at him surprised, and I started to stay something, but Dr. Morriss said, ‘Do you remember when we played…’ and he named a school I no longer remember. Wilton looked right at him and said, ‘You missed that first pass.’”
Shirley explained that Wilton had difficulty with memory at that time and she was surprised that he remembered something so specific from more than 20 years ago.
But that wasn’t the last of the story. Shirley continued, “Dr. Morriss said, ‘Yes, Coach, I do remember,’ and then Wilton said, ‘In the early morning you meet me right on that football field and I’m going to teach you something.’ Dr. Morriss said, ‘No, Coach, I’m your doctor,’ and he said, ‘No, you’re not my doctor. You’re my football player.’”
Shirley and Wilton were married for 58 years before his death in 2015.
“We had the best life,” Shirley said. “I can’t tell you what it meant. We got to go together, we got to do the same things. When he had a banquet it was my banquet, too. We got along really well. We didn’t agree all the time but learned real fast and real early that when we did not agree, one of us would leave the room and come back, and by then it was all over. I just loved him to death.”