PERSPECTIVE: Terry Nelson Was the Face of Leadership

By on January 4, 2019

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

Terry Nelson knew what leadership — a quality that is in short supply in our region today — looked like. Frankly, it looked a lot like him.

When Terry died at age 78 this Thursday (Jan. 3), he left behind a legacy of collaboration, innovation, and positive change.

Terry led the Carpenters for 22 years, before retiring in 2015.  His predecessors, Len Terbrock and Ollie Langhorst, were quiet statesmen who were instrumental in building management/labor collaboration (Full disclosure: I grew up in the same South County parish where Ollie, who was a friend of my Dad, lived).

By contrast, I once heard Terry describe himself as a “street fighter from St. Theresa’s on the North Side.” He had his iffy moments, notably when a dispute with IBEW Local 1 over installation of electrified window treatments at the Lumiere resulted in Nelson’s formation of his own electrical union, Carpenters Local 57. But much of his passionate bluster was theater, always directed at improving what he really cared about: the condition of the people he represented and of everyone in the St. Louis region.

Joining the Carpenters in the ’60s he rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming secretary-treasurer. Over the years he was involved in union reinvestment in housing; defeating Right to Work; the formation of the Regional Union Construction Center (RUCC), an incubator for M/WBE contractors; development of a training program whose reputation recently-retired director of workforce and training John Gaal took worldwide; understanding the issues of mental health and opioid abuse in construction long before they became headlines; diversity and inclusion in the trades; and, above all, seeing that his members delivered full value to their contractors.

In 2010 he created a brouha when he castigated his fellow union in workers in all trades in the media for — in his opinion — not delivering full value to their employers. He made it known in no uncertain terms that the Carpenters were business partners with their contractors and that, as such, it was their obligation to make sure that contractors were competitive and profitable.

“Terry would tell you what you needed to hear and not what you wanted to hear,” longtime Laborers leader Gary Elliott wrote on Nelson’s Facebook page.

Terry led the union through its merger with the Kansas City carpenters in 2010. The council has 20,000 members in 33 locals across Missouri, Kansas and Southern Illinois.

Al Bond, the current executive secretary-treasurer of the carpenters’ union, in a statement called Nelson “the most progressive labor leader in the construction industry.”

“More than anything, Terry will be remembered for his unwavering commitment to supporting working families and improving the lives of our members with fair wages, superior benefits and the ability to retire with dignity. Our entire carpenter family mourns his passing, and our prayers are with his family and friends at this time,” Bond said in a statement

Julie Cusmano Ledbetter, founder of Castle Contracting (now a McCarthy subsidiary), wrote on Faceboook: “Thank you for giving me a chance and believing in me 30 years ago. Your confidence in me gave me a lot of confidence in myself during some tough times. Your visionary leadership helped our industry tremendously. You will be missed.”

Terry is survived by his wife Nancy; children Terry Jr., Sherry, and Gary; and eight grandchildren. Visitation is Sunday (Jan. 6) from 1-8 p.m. at Kutis South County Chapel, 5255 Lemay Ferry Rd. A funeral Mass will be held Monday at 10 a.m. (Jan. 7) at Queen of All Saints Church.


About Tom Finan