AUBURN — Something is different about the start of this school year.
For the first time since 1960, Sue Nelson is not teaching in a northern Indiana classroom.
Oh, and there’s that other thing that is different …
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson, at age 81, still would be directing choirs and stage productions at Eastside Junior-Senior High School in Butler.
Instead, Nelson is staying home in Fort Wayne this fall to avoid the health risks of the coronavirus and the restrictions that have been placed on group singing.
“I still had more to give,” Nelson said this week. “I could still jump right back in right now and do it. I would be there. … I hope that everything goes well for all the teachers and it works out wonderful for everyone.”
Nelson already had passed typical retirement age when she continued her teaching career by coming to Eastside to fill a mid-year vacancy in January 2008.
Nelson had directed choirs, plays and musicals, coached girls softball, basketball, volleyball and track and served as cheerleader sponsor in a career that took her to New Carlisle, Leo, Harding and South Side high schools.
“I wasn’t ready to retire, and I was looking for a school corporation that supported that arts, and certainly that is the case — because look at that facility,” she said about Eastside’s auditorium.
“I like to be amongst and work with young people and talent, and I just wasn’t emotionally ready to stop, and physically I was like the Energizer Bunny. I was still moving along quite good — and still am,” she added.
Nelson grew up near Wakarusa, where she was very active in sports and music, she said. She enrolled at Manchester College and studied to become a teacher.
“I knew that there was a need for the combination I graduated from college with — music and physical education,” she said. “I got hired before I even graduated from college.”
In her first job at New Carlisle, she volunteered to dive into theater.
“They were looking for someone to direct the junior and senior class plays,” she said. “That was the beginning of directing theater at the high school level.”
As if she weren’t busy enough, in mid-career Nelson founded a community theater troupe in Fort Wayne known as The Grey Light Players.
“We tried to involve the entire family,” she said. She kept it up for 20 years until the group lost its home when Southtown Mall closed in 1996.
Her musical theater productions at Eastside included “Anything Goes,” “Oklahoma!,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and her all-time favorite, “Pippin.”
Nelson started Eastside’s first competing show choir as part of her vocal music duties.
“I had a really, really strong vocal jazz group,” also at Eastside, she said. “I think the highlight was the camaraderie among the choirs and the students involved. Likewise the plays and the musicals. It was just a really good, solid atmosphere.”
Despite being 60 years older than her students, Nelson encouraged them to perform contemporary music the teens and audiences enjoyed.
“Just the joy of passing on that music and giving them something to be excited and thrilled about is keeping me young,” she said.
Now that she has retired from teaching after 59 years, Nelson is looking forward to the day when music competitions return to normal.
She would like to judge choir contests at high schools and theme parks. In her career, she has judged at King’s Island, Cedar Point, Disney World and Six Flags.
Nelson might relax a little more in retirement, but sitting still is not her style.
“The secret is keeping working, keeping busy, doing what you love, which is — for me — music and theater,” she said.
“To me, age never has meant anything,” she said. “I just go and do what I love doing, and never put a number to it.”