ROBERT C. NELSON used to be intimidated by the very presence of the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, celebrated minister at Zion Baptist Church and creator of the Sullivan Principles that lead to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. It didn't help that when seated, Sullivan was easily as tall as Nelson was standing. The civil-rights activist was a giant of a man who stood 6-feet, 5-inches tall. His legend loomed even larger.
So, in 1985, after Sullivan tapped him to run his pet project, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, Nelson felt a tremendous responsibility to live up to his predecessor - and to the powerful black self-sufficiency movement that spawned the creation of the North Philly-based job-training center.
Fast-forward 30 years. Nelson, now 70, is set to retire at the end of next month as OIC's president and chief executive officer, leaving some huge accomplishments as his own imposing legacy.
The timing feels right. The OIC will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center June 12-14 that brings in the Rev. Al Sharpton as keynote speaker, and includes a black-tie gala and awards ceremony.
"You have to understand when it's a good time to leave," Nelson told me in a recent interview. "I'm no longer the one who brings the infusion of new ideas to the table. I've done that."
You should also understand that Nelson is a modest man. "The OIC might replace some of the administrative aspects of what that job might entail, but they won't find another Bob," said local PR guru and fellow traveler A. Bruce Crawley.
"He's a good man," said Crawley, who met Nelson while in college. "I don't say that easily about a lot of people."
Hospitality: The Nelson legacy
When he took over in 1985, OIC was known for helping its students learn skills for entry-level clerical jobs and construction work, among other fields.
But times were changing. City leaders had turned to tourism and the hospitality industry to replace lost manufacturing jobs.
Nelson began to meet regularly with Crawley, Philadelphia state Rep. Dwight Evans, Ernie Jones of the Urban Affairs Coalition and other members of the Multicultural Affairs Congress to ensure that African- Americans benefited from the opening of the $500 million Pennsylvania Convention Center.
To that end, OIC created a training program called the Opportunities Inn to prepare local people to become front-desk clerks, hotel housekeepers and chefs. The hospitality training site - still going strong at OIC's headquarters on North Broad Street - includes amenities like a hotel lobby where students learn to handle customer complaints, make reservations and do accounting.
Kristol Bryant, a formerly unemployed single mother of two who graduated from the program in 1999, was able to get off welfare after graduation. These days, Bryant is the executive chef at the Hyatt at the Bellevue Hotel and the chef de cuisine at the hotel's XIX Restaurant. Bryant, who grew up without a father, said if not for the Opportunities Inn and Nelson's encouragement, "I don't know where I would be."
"The OIC was a great place with Rev. Sullivan and his great legacy," Crawley recalled, "but OIC had never done anything like this."
Evans concurred, crediting Nelson for "taking a leap of faith and designing the Opportunities Inn.
"As a result of that," he said, "thousands of African-Americans have been put into the hospitality industry in terms of managers, general managers and servers . . . not just in this region but across the nation," thanks to OIC chapters elsewhere adopting Opportunities Inn-type models.
West Philly's finest
Growing up in West Philly, Nelson was a bright kid who excelled at William B. Hanna Elementary and later William H. Shoemaker Junior High. His parents, a postal carrier and a church secretary, convinced him to bypass Overbrook High School and instead enroll at the more rigorous Central High. For the first time, Nelson found himself struggling academically.
"He loved basketball. He loved women. Still does," said his younger sister, Marita Turner, of Silver Spring, Md. "At the time, he could be lazy if you let him and they knew how bright he was."
After high school, his parents steered him in the direction of Central State College, a historically black college in Ohio. Their hope was that being in a suburban setting would help their son focus on schoolwork.
Nelson majored in education at Central, pledged Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and joined the school's ROTC program. After graduating in the mid-1960s, he was commissioned into the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam, where his job monitoring government contractors earned him a Bronze Star.
By the early 1970s, he was back in Philly and taking graduate classes in social administration at Temple University. He supported himself and his wife by working as a counselor for OIC, providing services for unemployed men who were training to become welders.
In 1978, Nelson wrote the proposal that lead to the creation of OIC Futures, a program that helped mainstream people with mental disabilities into maintenance and clerical jobs. It lasted until 2012 when its funding dried up.
Along the way, he developed a reputation for being tireless when it came to seeking grants and other funding to keep Sullivan's dreams alive. In 1994, when OIC workers were scrambling to prepare a four-story complex with 44 rooms for homeless men, Nelson was with them until the wee hours.
"That impressed me because a lot of executives would have left that to somebody else to get done," said Tony Moore, who worked for OIC for 37 years.
At times, the work was all consuming. "I think people felt I lived in the basement of OIC," Nelson chuckled.
All work and no play . . . isn't him
Not that Nelson, who is separated, is a grind. Far from it. A dapper dresser, he works a room a like a politican.
During his off hours, he enjoys sports and frequents establishments like Devon Seafood Grill on Rittenhouse Square and DiNardo's Famous Crabs in Old City. And he has a reputation for having a way with the ladies.
"He looks like Sammy Davis Jr., said his friend George Marks, who met Nelson when his firm Kramer+Marks Architects did some work for OIC.
But "it's not about great looks," Marks said. "Women just love Bob.
"He has dated some incredibly gorgeous women."
During his OIC tenure, Nelson has met three sitting U.S. presidents, dined with Ret. Gen. Colin Powell and met former Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He's traveled to Ethiopa and Tanzania on OIC business.
Nelson's only child, Rob Nelson, an anchor for New York's ABC affiliate, doesn't remember a time his father wasn't all about OIC. "Having a chance to listen to and work with Rev. Sullivan really was a turning point for him," said Rob. "It resonated."
"From a personal perspective, retirement is going to be a rough transition."