A longtime advocate for people with disabilities is honored for her leadership.
Dr. Gerry Clancy, chairman of the 2014 Tulsa Area United Way campaign, and Ruth K. Nelson, recipient of the 2015 Clydella Hentschel Award for Women in Leadership.
Courtesy Tulsa Area United Way
When describing a strong leader, many words come to mind — dedicated, compassionate, tough, honest, fair. All of these have been used to describe Ruth K. Nelson, who has spent more than 35 years advocating for people with disabilities.
Nelson is the recent recipient of the 2015 Clydella Hentschel Award for Women in Leadership, which honors female leaders for their devotion to the Tulsa community. The Women’s Leadership Council of the Tulsa Area United Way presented Nelson with the award named for one of Tulsa’s pioneering civil servants.
Nelson’s efforts began in 1968, when she saw a need for accessible apartments for Tulsans with disabilties. Nelson says her desire to help others was inspired by her mother, Kate Kaiser.
“My mother served as a volunteer at the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges in the late ’50s when I was in college,” Nelson says. “I moved back to Tulsa in 1960, and through the ’60s and ’70s I was a stay-at-home mother while serving on various boards. I was asked to join the board of the Center, where my mother continued to serve as a volunteer.”
Though Nelson’s mother continues to be her role model in many areas, Nelson says her father, Herman Kaiser, also committed to the causes he believed in most.
Although Nelson no longer sits on its board of directors, she continues to support the Center. It is just one of many organizations with which she has been involved.
In 1989, Nelson was appointed to the Housing Authority of the City of Tulsa Board of Commissioners and has served as its chairwoman for more than 23 years.
In that role, she worked with Mental Health Association Oklahoma on the “Building Tulsa, Building Lives” initiative to provide safe and affordable housing to those impacted by mental illness and homelessness. Nelson was instrumental in the Housing Authority’s partnership with the Association on the development and construction of Yale Avenue Apartments.
“When nearby home owners and businesses opposed the building of Yale Avenue, Ruth stood shoulder to shoulder with us to educate people about the critical need for the life-changing apartment complex,” says Michael Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
He has known Nelson for nearly 20 years and says she is a source of inspiration for many Tulsans — specifically women.
“Ruth is a role model for all women in our community and state, demonstrating to them the essential role they play and the importance of their voices that must be heard and reckoned with,” he says.
“She has demonstrated to all of us that there is a time to never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Because of supporters like Ruth, many of those who once opposed Yale Avenue are now some of its most outspoken advocates,
according to Brose. Her involvement led to various other projects, including the development of Murdock Villa, a housing facility for people with disabilities.
Chea Redditt, president of the Housing Authority, describes Nelson as “a mighty advocate for women, the poor and the disabled.”
“Ruth has a unique understanding of oppression and a tremendous respect for human life and human rights,” Redditt says. “Ruth’s commitment, her considerable energy, intellect and resources have improved the lives of Tulsans in all walks of life.”
Although her coworkers and friends give Nelson no shortage of praise, she prefers to stay out of the spotlight. She is too busy seeing needs and offering her assistance — an approach she recommends to others who wish to better their communities.
“In order for people to learn about community initiatives and programs,” she says, “they should become involved with entities in an area that interests them and where they can be of use.”