Activist Isabell-Nelson says goodbye to DuluthDebbie Isabell-Nelson has been one of the more recognizable faces in Duluth’s western communities over the past decade. She’s been a housing advocate, a community club organizer, led cleanup efforts and even ran for office.
Debbie Isabell-Nelson has been one of the more recognizable faces in Duluth’s western communities over the past decade. She’s been a housing advocate, a community club organizer, led cleanup efforts and even ran for office.
But as the lifelong-Duluth resident prepares to move to the Twin Cities to spend more time with family, what does she believe her legacy will be?
“Sewer Queen,” she said with a laugh. “I think sewers might be my legacy.”
Isabell-Nelson emerged as a community activist when she led a successful effort to repair faulty sewer systems and pipes in Morgan Park after her sewage repeatedly backed up into neighborhood basements.
She created a 25-member task force, which encouraged the city to undertake the multi-million-dollar replacement project in 2004. Some of Isabell-Nelson’s friends and colleagues made up T-shirts and presented her with one that read “Sewer Queen” on the back.
Preparing to say goodbye
Isabell-Nelson thought the shirt was long gone until she discovered it while clearing out her house to prepare for the move. It was just one of many Duluth remnants she rediscovered that makes leaving Duluth so difficult.
“The funny thing is I’ve already cleared out half my house and you wouldn’t even know it by looking at how much stuff is still there,” she said. “It’s difficult to say goodbye to some of these memories.”
Isabell-Nelson held her estate sale last weekend at the historic Morgan Park Lakeview Building, where she parted with her many memorabilia collections: Reese’s, Raggedy Ann, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, the Wizard of Oz.
The sale was held in a vacant shop, where Isabell-Nelson had planned to open a thrift shop before deciding to move. She donated some of the sale’s proceeds to the Morgan Park Community Club and said she hopes someone else will fulfill her vision of revitalizing the shop.
Friends were lined up at the door before the sale last Friday and Isabell-Nelson had her hands full just trying to keep up with all the well-wishers who stopped in to peruse the items and say goodbye.
Duluth insurance agent Rolf Flaig worked with Isabell-Nelson at Neighborhood Housing Services, where she served as the neighborhood coordinator, overseeing neighborhood revitalization plans and community outreach.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on, she’s always laughing and smiling,” Flaig said.
“You want to surround yourself with people like Debbie.”
Isabell-Nelson has also served as president of the Morgan Park Community Club. Karin Swor, who lives across the street from Isabell-Nelson and also serves in the club, said she’s not looking forward to Isabell-Nelson’s departure.
“She’s been very, very active in the community,” Swor said. “She’s a go-getter. She does what she sets out to do.”
Friends and colleagues remember her work
Isabell-Nelson, 60, is a 1970 graduate of Denfeld High School. She grew up in Duluth’s West End (as it was then known) before moving to Morgan Park 35 years ago. She ran Debbie’s Day Care in Morgan Park from 1983 to 2003.
Since ending her run in the child care business, Isabell-Nelson has gone on to work on countless community projects not only in the western communities, but also citywide.
Carole Newkumet, who has co-chaired the Riverfront Communities Group with Isabell-Nelson, recalled meeting her.
“Before I met Debbie I kept seeing her name and picture in the paper and wondering, ‘Who is this woman?’ and ‘Why is she always in the paper?’ Once I got involved and got to know her, the question was, ‘Why isn’t she getting more press?’ Without Debbie there would not be a Riverfront Communities group.”
Isabell-Nelson has been a longtime supporter of crime-reduction efforts. She has served on the neighborhood citizen patrol and worked with Duluth’s Citywide Crime Prevention Initiative. Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay recalled her work on the initiative.
“I remember meeting with Debbie five or six years ago at Starbucks,” he told the Budgeteer in 2011. “After meeting Debbie, I knew this was going to happen; and it was going to happen right, and it was going to be a good program.”
Ben Small has worked closely with Isabell-Nelson on neighborhood revitalization plans over the past several years.
“Debbie is one of the most energetic and passionate people I have ever worked with,” said Small, an attorney and former CHUM shelter employee. “I think one of the most important contributions Debbie made, from my perspective, was opening dialogue between neighbors and neighborhood constituents who may not ever have spoken before. She organized block parties and worked hard to make everyone, including the renters and lower-income people on the block feel welcome.”
Family top priority now
Isabell-Nelson plans to leave Duluth once her house is sold. While she said it’s tough to leave the only city she has ever lived in, her two sons, Peter and Joshua, and five grandchildren, ages 2 to 16, all live in the Twin Cities.
Isabell-Nelson’s husband, Carl “Gator” Nelson, died Jan. 5, 2011. He was also a major Morgan Park supporter, and was voted as the 2010 Neighborhood Hero in Morgan Park.
Since her husband’s death, Isabell-Nelson has remained active in the community. Last year, she sought a new chapter in her life by running for a position as a St. Louis County commissioner. Her campaign against incumbent Chris Dahlberg fell short, but she said she wasn’t too shaken by the loss.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Isabell-Nelson said. “I don’t have to commit four years to that, and I can go spend time with my family now.”
Even though her friends might not believe her, Isabell-Nelson said she doesn’t plan to become too involved in politics or community groups at her new home in Chanhassen.
“Everyone keeps asking me if I’ll get involved in political things when I move there,” she said. “I keeping telling them that the only political thing that I’ll be doing is letting my grandkids vote on what to do next.”
Say Goodbye to Debbie
Friends of Debbie Isabell-Nelson will be hosting a final sendoff party for the community activist before she goes to the Twin Cities to spend time with her family.
WHAT: “Over the Rainbow Party” for Debbie Isabell-Nelson
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 21
WHERE: Morgan Park Community Center