Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 7, 2020

Always a backstory

Nelson’s biggest life moments seem to come with an anecdote

Ward Nelson estimates he was 19 when he decided what he was going to be when he grew up. He remembers wrestling with the matter while taking a shower at 2 in the morning and reaching the decision that would define his professional life.

“I was pretty good at numbers but not reading. My score in the math portion of the SAT was way above my score in the verbal portion,” Nelson, a Chattanooga native and Miller & Martin attorney, recalls. “So, I decided to switch from pre-med to accounting.”

Nelson, 62, would likely never say he was good at numbers, just “pretty good,” as he adds a touch of humility to every statement someone could perceive as being self-exalting.

Still, Nelson liked working with numbers and despised reading (due, he says, to undiagnosed ADHD), so he pursued an accounting degree.

Despite being only “pretty good” at numbers, Nelson graduated from the University of North Carolina with an accounting degree, became a CPA and then took a job in Charlotte with one of the largest firms in the U.S. – Ernst & Whinney, now Ernst & Young.

But he never intended to remain a CPA; instead, he wanted to become an attorney.

Although Nelson can’t explain why, as there were no attorneys in his family, and he can’t recall anyone else inspiring him to pursue a career in the law, he does remember when he decided it was time.

“After I had been an accountant for a year, I had my wisdom tooth removed,” he says. “Back then, the procedure was brutal, so I had to spend a few days at home not working. That was when I decided to take the LSAT.”

Many of Nelson’s memories of the turning points in his life are couched in minor details like a late-night shower or traumatic dental procedure. This is even true of his recollection of reaching a decision that would define his personal life.

“I had brought my girlfriend, Margaret, home with me for Christmas,” Nelson, who was 22 at the time, reminisces. “While I was downstairs telling my parents I wanted to marry her, she was supposed to be asleep upstairs. Little did I know she was leaning over the railing at the top of the stairs, listening.”

Nelson steps back into the shower for a story about the collision of the North Carolina bar exam and the birth of his son Merrill.

“The exam was coming up in 10 days, so I was studying all night,” he recalls. “Margaret was due to deliver our first child the following week, but her water broke the week before the exam.”

Merrill wasn’t born until midnight the following day. When Nelson went home one hour later to sleep, he’d been awake for three days.

“I woke up four hours later, took a shower and had a towel wrapped around me as I was on the phone telling a friend the news,” he continues. “The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital.”

Nelson had passed out while speaking with his friend. Fortunately, his father-in-law, who was staying with them, heard him fall and called for an ambulance.

Its crew took Nelson to the same hospital where his wife was resting with their newborn son. “When her friends asked her about me, she said, ‘Who cares about Ward? I just had a baby!’” Nelson says with a laugh.

Despite the exhausting ordeal, Nelson recovered and passed the exam. He then accepted a position with Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte, where he’d worked as an intern.

Nelson had also interned at Miller & Martin in his hometown and received a job offer from the firm, but he and Margaret chose to stay in North Carolina, close to her family.

That changed two years later when Nelson received devastating news.

“My brother called me to say our sister, Catherine, had melanoma,” he says. “She had only a few months to live.”

When Catherine moved back to Chattanooga, Nelson called Jim Haley, then the managing partner at Miller & Martin, and asked if the firm still had a place for him.

It did.

Nelson pauses to suppress tears and then continues, saying, “I feel lucky because, back then, law jobs were plentiful and it was easier to get hired as a lawyer than it is now.”

Nelson and his wife remained in Chattanooga after his sister died and have lived in the city ever since.

In the 33 years since coming home, Nelson has been a part of Miller & Martin’s corporate law department. During this time, his background in accounting and taxes has proven to be invaluable in structuring and evaluating the financial aspects of business transactions, including mergers and acquisitions in various industries and private equity transactions.

“I still use my training as an accountant every day,” Nelson notes. “I don’t see how people who studied English or history do what I do.”

Highlights for Nelson include helping Miller & Martin to represent the FDIC in the failure of First Republic Bank in Dallas in the early 90s and working with Coca-Cola Enterprises as it purchased bottling companies across the U.S. and Western Europe.

Nelson has also represented health care clients with transactional and contract matters, including Memorial Hospital for over 20 years.

His goal in every matter, he says, is to serve as a team player, both for the client’s benefit and his.

“When a client asks me to do something, my first question is, ‘Can our firm do this well for a fair price?’ And then I ask, ‘Who’s going to do the work?’” he explains. “I’m not going to pretend to be able to do something I can possibly limp through. We have, in almost every area of the law, people who are very good at what they do.”

Nelson has also worked behind the scenes to serve his firm, profession and community, although he insists his contributions pale in comparison to those of his law partners and wife.

Regardless, Nelson served as the chair of Miller & Martin’s corporate law department and health care practice group for eight years and occupied a seat on the firm’s policy committee for four years.

In addition, Nelson began serving as the chair of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Business Law Section July 1.

In the role, Nelson, together with his section committee, is responsible for providing continuing legal education, alerts on legal developments and making recommendations to the TBA’s board of governors regarding relevant state legislation.

Nelson says serving as chair of the section is his “tiny way of trying to give back to his profession.”

“A long time ago, a senior partner here said one of the things we have an obligation to do is become involved in our bar associations,” he says. “I have not been as good about that as I should have been. A lot of our people have been president of the Chattanooga Bar Association, and a couple have been president of the TBA, and I’ve always admired them for that because, to be candid with you, we get paid based on how much we work.

“That’s the reality of our profession, whether we like it or not. So, it’s a struggle for every attorney to figure out how to manage his or her time and give back to their profession or community in an effective manner.”

Nelson claims his volunteer work at the community level has been minimal, as well. However, the short list of his efforts includes serving as chair of the McCallie Alumni Council, chair of the church council at First Centenary United Methodist Church and board member of various nonprofits, including those of Signal Centers and the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Personal passion for the cause underpinned each role, whether it was his love for his high school alma mater, his faith as a Christian, or his personal struggles with sight and hearing issues.

“Everyone has a soft spot in their heart for a certain group of people, and for me, it’s the blind and the deaf,” he notes, referring to his service to Signal Centers. “I wonder, ‘What’s that like? How can I ever complain about anything?’”

Nelson also taught junior Sunday school at First Centenary for 10 years, bowing out only after his three sons were grown and he felt out of touch with what youth today like.

“There aren’t many things I would insist on being in my obituary, but that’s probably one of them,” he says.

Nelson’s peers at the Chattanooga Bar Foundation disagreed with his modest summation of his service endeavors, and in 2016 made him a Fellow – an honor he appreciates but also tries to downplay.

“I think it was based more on my age than anything else,” he says with a self-effacing smile.

Pressed to identify something he’s proud of achieving, Nelson says being married to “Margaret Brown of Raleigh, North Carolina” for 40 years. “That sounds sappy, but I hope my friends of my vintage would say the same thing,” he adds.

Nelson is also proud of their three children, including Merrill, a corporate attorney with Miller & Martin, Sam, a hospitalist at Memorial Hospital, and Wes, a CPA.

Although Nelson says he wouldn’t trade being a lawyer for any other profession, once he begins to discuss his family, he leaves work behind. At 19, he wondered what he would do when he grew up, and at 62, he realizes he became a husband and a father.

With this in mind, he wants his family to remember two things when they someday think back on him. The first is not that he was attorney, or a fellow, or a Sunday school teacher, but that he was kind.

When his youngest son, Wes, married recently, Nelson offered a quote by American author Henry James, who said, “There are three things in life that are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; the third is to be kind.”

“What do you really want people to say about you when you’re gone?” he adds, stopping again to hold back fresh tears.

Nelson also hopes people remember him for the quiet way he expresses his faith. “St. Francis of Assisi said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.’

“I’ve fallen short of this, and my wife does a better job of it than me, but I hope we’ve instilled it in our children. If we leave anything behind, that should be it.”