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Alumni in Action

As the Business World Changes, Ruth Nelson’s Gratitude to WSB Remains Constant

Former publishing executive establishes a new faculty chair for the School

By Jane Burns

November 2, 2018

Ruth Nelson
Ruth Nelson (BBA ’48)

A good education doesn’t just prepare you for that first job out of college, it helps prepare you to learn in the years that follow, too.

That ability to learn and adapt is a key to any career success, and few people know that better than Ruth Nelson (BBA ’48). Gratitude for how education laid the foundation for a successful career inspired her to establish the Ruth L. Nelson Chair in Business at the Wisconsin School of Business.

“I’ve given the gift to express my appreciation for sending me on the road to productivity and a wonderful career,” Nelson says.  “It’s nice to be able to say thank you.”

From slide rules in business classes to information moving to the cloud, Nelson watched the business world transform before her eyes as she enjoyed a long executive career that included many years in the publishing industry.

“I’m a great believer in education, whether it’s business school or anywhere else, and it helps to be constantly learning and to be a lifelong learner,” she says. “When you’re in college you don’t have any idea of what’s going to happen in the classes you’ll be taking. That’s just a precursor of what life is going to be.”

Nelson always sought a career in business, even if she didn’t see many women doing that as she was growing up.

“My father was a personnel director for Continental Can Company and I thought, ‘That sounds like a nice job, I’ll do that,’” she says. “It was as simple as that. Nobody told me business wasn’t for women.”

Campus during wartime

Nelson grew up in Chicago and longed to study at UW–Madison because a beloved grade-school teacher had attended the university, and she wanted to follow suit despite her parents’ insistence that she attend Northwestern. She arrived in 1944, with the world at war. Relatively few people attended college, and few men were on campus because so many were fighting abroad.

“It was just a very small school of accountants,” Nelson recalls of what was then called the School of Commerce. “There were no computers. The statistics class was taught by a guy who had a huge slide rule on the wall—that’s how he did his numbers. People didn’t even use adding machines.”

After graduating, Nelson headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, to join a management training position at Montgomery Ward. She left to travel the world for a while and upon returning home to Chicago, she joined a training program at Time Inc., which was looking for people to help the company convert its data storage and information processing from punch cards to magnetic tape. It was another example of the changing world she witnessed as she moved through her career.

“My father would say, ‘You have no idea what it was like to be brought up in the horse and buggy days’ and that’s exactly how I feel now,” she says. “When I tell people I worked on a conversion from punch card to magnetic tape, most people have no idea what that means. None. Absolutely none.”

‘The business end’ of publishing

After moving up in the company as a systems and programming manager, she headed to New York to work in the marketing department. She helped develop a budget for Sports Illustrated and worked with various groups to market subscriptions.

“Most people think of Time and they think of the writing end of the business,” she says. “I was always in the business end of the business.”

Her connections in the publishing world led to her next position—with Time subsidiary American Family Publishers as vice president of publisher relations for the U.S. and Canada. She launched operations in the U.K., too.

“We would generate a half a million subscriptions for a magazine and it was my job to work with the publishers to get the promotion they wanted and then predict what the outcome was going to be,” Nelson says.  “It was using all my business administration experience in a way I never thought I would.”

It wasn’t all work for Nelson. Her travels took her to an amazing array of golf courses to try, she attended three Olympics, she has traveled the world twice, rafted the Colorado River, and taught ballroom dancing.

“I did all that while I was trying to make a living,” she says. “I didn’t waste any time, I tell you that.”

Continuing to follow her own path

She still doesn’t. Her last paying job was as director of education for her church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, and after leaving that in 2007 she spent a semester at sea, followed by six months of volunteer work in Costa Rica. She stayed involved with business as a volunteer with the National Executive Service Corp., a nonprofit that works in management consulting.

She returned to her hometown of Chicago in 2013 and dedicates herself to local volunteer work that includes a local library and her church, as well as being involved with the Lyric Opera. Now there’s a little more time to return to her alma mater, which she does annually for a football game and a visit to favorite campus spots.

Her busy “retirement” isn’t unlike the early years of her career as the rare female business executive—following her own path and not stopping to think what others might be doing differently. Nelson never defined people by color, gender, or age, she says, which helped her chart her own path and build her career success.

“With a lot of luck, too,” she says, “which fortunately I was able to take advantage of because of my UW education.”

Anne P. Massey, professor of Operations and Information Management at WSB, holds the Ruth L. Nelson Chair in Business for the 2018-19 academic year.