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Bemidji State University names Dr. Darby and Geri Nelson as recipients of 34th Distinguished Minnesotan award


April 12, 2016 - Dr. Darby and Geri Nelson, philanthropists from Champlin, Minn., will be the recipients of Bemidji State University's 34th Distinguished Minnesotan award.

First presented by Bemidji State in 1981, the Distinguished Minnesotan Award acknowledges the contributions of current or former residents of the state who have performed exemplary service to the people of Minnesota or the United States. This will be the first Distinguished Minnesotan award with multiple recipients.

The Distinguished Minnesotan traditionally delivers Bemidji State's Commencement address. The university's 97th Commencement ceremony will be held May 6 at the Sanford Center in Bemidji.

In March 2015, the Nelsons created Bemidji State University's Helping Hands (Naadamaageng) Student Assistance Fund for American Indian students. The fund provides cash awards, which can range from $100-750, intended to help native students overcome an immediate financial obstacle that might otherwise thwart their academic progress.

A July, 2015, feature story on the Nelsons in the Osseo Press and News said the Nelsons' desire to support Native students stemmed from Darby's childhood. He was born on an Indian reservation near Minnesota's Lake Vermilion, where he learned about Native culture.

In addition, the president of the then-Bemidji State Teachers College helped Darby's father, Miles, stay in school and go on to get his first teaching job in Red Lake, Minn., which has created a strong sense of personal loyalty to Bemidji State – even though neither he nor Darcy had ever attended the university themselves.

"We owe such a debt to Bemidji," Darby said, "and this is one way we can really say thank you, by means of helping Indian kids have a fighting chance."

The Naadamaageng Student Assistance Fund is just part of a broad range of philanthropic efforts the Nelsons have spearheaded across Minnesota and internationally. They previously have donated to The Nature Conservancy, an organization that Darby also served as a trustee; their alma mater, the University of Minnesota, including its Itasca Biological Field Station in Itasca State Park, where the Nelsons met and fell in love in 1966; the League of Women Voters Minnesota; and Anoka-Ramsey Community College, where Darby taught for 35 years. He received multiple teaching awards and was named College Science Teacher of the Year by the Minnesota Academy of Science and the Minnesota Science Teachers' Association.

Bemidji State University's Distinguished Minnesotan award was presented annually from 1981-2009, and was not awarded in 2010 or 2012.


• Jackie Carroll, Office of the President, Bemidji State University; (218) 755-2017 (tel:2187552017),


* Bemidji State University Commencement information:

* High-resolution photo of Dr. Darby and Geri Nelson: []

* BSU news release – May 11, 2015: "Champlin Couple Create Fund to Support BSU's American Indian Students" []

* Bemidji State University magazine – "Finding Joy in Doing Good" []

* Darby Nelson author page on (


Recipients of Bemidji State University's Distinguished Minnesotan award

1981 Sigurd Olson, naturalist and author

1982 Karl Kassulke, athlete and handicap advocate

1983 Janet Dearholt Esty, businesswoman and entrepreneur

1984 Frederick F. Manfred, author

1985 Dr. John Najarian, transplant surgeon

1986 Dr. Harlan Cleveland, political scientist

1987 Muriel Buck Humphrey Brown, advocate for the disadvantaged

1988 Elmer L. Andersen, businessman and former governor

1989 Curtis L. Carlson, businessman and philanthropist

1990 William S. Marvin, businessman and community leader

1991 Meridel LeSueur, writer and social activist

1992 Veda Ponikvar, newspaper publisher

1993 Nellie Stone Johnson, political and social activist

1994 Cheryl Dickson, leader in humanities programming

1995 William H. Kling, innovator in public radio

1996 Jerry Willet, businessman and former state senator

1997 Ann Bancroft, explorer of the North Pole and South Pole

1998 Bob Bergland, congressman and former U.S. secretary of agriculture

1999 Coya Knutson, congresswoman

2000 Jon Hassler, author and educator

2001 Libby Larsen, composer

2002 Rosalie Wahl, Minnesota Supreme Court justice

2003 Edgar Heteen, entrepreneur and snowmobile pioneer

2004 Herb Brooks, men's ice hockey coach

2005 Gerald Vizenor, author and educator

2006 Kathleen Blatz, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court

2007 Paul Wellstone, U.S. Senator & Shiela Wellstone, advocate against domestic abuse

2008 Dr. Alex Cirillo, Jr., vice president for community affairs, 3M

2009 Don Shelby, television anchor

2010 [no award given]

2011 Susan Marvin, president of Marvin Windows & Doors

2012 [no award given]

2013 Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, senior military assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense

2014 Trudy Rautio, Carlson Companies CEO

2015 Jon McTaggart, president & CEO, American Public Media Group

2016 Darby & Geri Nelson, philanthropists


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