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CJ Nelson finds home in Worthington

CJ Nelson (above) is shown in his office at the Worthington Area YMCA. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)1 / 2
CJ Nelson works with youths on a basketball court at the Y. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Family has always been a big part of CJ Nelson’s life.

It’s the reason he is known as CJ.

It’s the reason he moved around when he was younger.

And it’s the reason Worthington is his home.

Named after his paternal grandfather, CJ’s given name is Colt.

“My grandpa passed away when my dad was a little kid and his name was Clarence, so thank God they didn’t call me Clarence,” Nelson said. “They wanted to name me somehow after him, and they called him CJ. He was a horse guy, so that’s another part of it. Colt came with the horse.”

Nelson moved multiple times when he was young, including stops in South Dakota, Missouri and Iowa.

“Dad kept on getting new jobs,” Nelson said. “We moved back here, and Mom has been here ever since.”

Now, as the program director at the Worthington Area YMCA, Nelson has found his home. In fact, he points to his mother as the reason why he hasn’t looked elsewhere.

“She’s always been there,” Nelson said. “That’s one of the reasons I haven’t looked anywhere else. My mom is very close here to me, and I have good friends.

“Over the years, you meet people, and they are here. You have a good job, you have a good family and you have good friends — why do you need to look somewhere else? “I think the biggest thing is finding a good group of people you enjoy, and if you do that, you’ll be happy wherever you’re at.”

Early life

Nelson was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and found his way to Worthington for kindergarten and a few weeks of first grade.

“I went from Sioux City to Sioux Falls to Worthington,” he said. “Then we moved to Missouri to Jefferson City, and then we moved to Agency, Mo. Then we moved to Des Moines, and another house in Des Moines, and then back here. There was lots of moving.”

New jobs kept the Nelsons moving until CJ was in the fourth grade, when Worthington became his permanent home.

“I enjoyed it when I got to stay where I was,” Nelson said. “You get to keep your friends, and I think that’s the biggest thing — you’re always not moving and wondering when you’re packing up next. You always find good friends and then you’re gone.”

Outside of a few semesters away at college, Nelson has been in Worthington ever since.

“It is different now than what it was; we didn’t quite have the culture that we do now,” Nelson said. “I enjoyed Worthington. I always have — that’s the reason why I wanted to come back. I had good friends and good people. There were always other adults who were influential who helped out and made things good.”

Nelson graduated from Worthington High School in 2004 and played basketball, football and ran track at WHS. He points to coaches Ron Vorwald, Ken Henkels, Dennis Hale and Mike Traphagen as positive influences in his life.

After high school, Nelson attended Minnesota West and played basketball for coach Justin Heckenlaible.

“It was cheap, and it was an opportunity to play basketball,” Nelson said. “Family was the biggest thing. My mom is right here. I know I had a home-cooked meal whenever I wanted it.”


As a freshman in high school, Nelson was convinced to begin working at the Worthington Area YMCA.

“I did some day camp stuff in the summer,” he said. “Some of my friends worked at the front desk, and they roped me into working the front desk. I’ve been here ever since, for 13 years.”

After graduating from high school, Nelson continued to work, even while attending college.

“That’s when I started taking on a more serious role in running some programs and doing some things like that,” he said. “Wayne (Klumper) kind of helped me get situated with a few things, and then started trusting me a little bit more with running programs by myself and not having necessarily a program director around. He knew it was going to get done the right way.”

Earning his degree from Minnesota West, Nelson then enrolled in Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, where he worked for the Marshall YMCA and was involved in the school’s intramural program.

“I started out as an education major, and I decided to switch over to recreation,” Nelson said. “I pretty much knew there was going to be a job that was going to be open about the time I was going to get done. I knew Wayne was looking to get out and retire. I was pretty much hoping that it would all work out.”

Nelson took over as the program director shortly after graduation. In his role, Nelson organizes and leads youth and adult sports — and other programs — throughout the year.

“I like the fact you get to work with kids, and you get to work with adults, and you get to work with senior citizens,” Nelson said. “The other thing I like is it’s always something different. It’s not the same thing every single day. With sports, you have something for six weeks and then another thing for six weeks. It’s constantly changing. Sports are fun, so it makes your job fun. You get to see kids having fun.”

Nelson said Klumper, the former program director at the YMCA, as well as current co-workers Andy Johnson and Mark Wibbens, have been positive impacts as he has grown into the position.

“I think people have guided me in the right direction,” Nelson said. “Klumper was a good influence when he was here, and he always came to work and he was happy and enjoyed it. That’s one of the things that brings me back. Andy has been real good to me through the years. Both him and (Wibbens), I know I drive them crazy sometimes, but overall they look out for me and want the best for me. I think that’s part of every job. You make your mistakes, they try to help you through it.”

In his younger days, Nelson participated in sports through the Y. As an adult, he has continued to participate in events.

“It’s a nice place to meet people and just go and have fun with your friends, too,” Nelson said. “There are some nice opportunities that way.”

One such opportunity helped him land his future wife, Kelly Nickel.

“I knew her from high school. She moved back to town, and I saw her in the middle school one day. I tricked her into coming to play kickball,” Nelson said. “I obviously wanted her to hang out, so I figured that would be a fun way to do it. She came out and played kickball, and then we went out for drinks afterward at the Hickory. She just kept hanging out with me for some reason.”

After proposing on the very same kickball field months later, they are planning a May 17 wedding.

And for a guy who has moved around enough in his life, Nelson said he has no plans of going elsewhere.

“I like it here, obviously,” he said. “I think Kelly wants to stick around; she likes her job. As far as we know, we’re not looking to move anywhere. As long as the Y keeps being good to me, it’s what I like doing, so I’m not planning on going anywhere.”