By Darrick Meneken, Managing Editor
Photography by Barbara Kinney
Chuck Nelson turns his head to look out a window on the 21st Floor of the WAC. In the western distance, ferryboats slide by on the slate waters of Puget Sound. Chuck grew up close to a view very much like this, four blocks from Legion Memorial Golf Course on the north end of Everett.
“Us old Everett guys call it muni,” he says.
Chuck has come a long way since his early days on the Snohomish River Delta, but you quickly get the feeling he’s a hometown boy at heart. Perhaps it’s the way he recalls sneaking on to the fairways at “muni” or how he tells you his dad graduated from the University of Washington in 1954. Even if you don’t get that hometown sense sitting down with the WAC’s new President & CEO, you can’t help but know how Chuck sees himself.
“I’m a family man,” he says, choosing to emphasize that rather than his distinguished sports and broadcast careers. “That’s how I think of myself.”
He’s also an experienced executive who learned leadership skills from two of the best football coaches of the 1980s; a golfer who could probably hang on the Senior PGA Tour (the age limit is only 50, you know); and a community volunteer elected into the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Alumni Hall of Fame the same year as retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
“Chuck’s a terrific leader,” says Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s restaurants. The two worked closely during Chuck’s time as executive director of the Boeing Classic golf tournament. “He’s a good people person and people manager,” Donegan says.
Chuck joined the WAC in 1999 while working across the street at Union Square. From 2004 to 2009 he spent almost every weekday on the Clubhouse’s little-known 22nd Floor, the original office of the Boeing Classic.
Chuck continues to spend time one flight down from his old desk, at the 101 Club. The WAC-based group supports amateur athletics, and Chuck served as president from 2004 to 2005. That connection, he says, played an instrumental role in leading him to the Boeing Classic.
“I had the best office in town,” he recalls of his top-floor digs.
This past February, he moved into the WAC President & CEO’s office, a large space on the northeast corner of the 9th Floor.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” he says. “To be a steward of what this institution has been and is—and to have a role in what it might be—is an honor.”
Already, Chuck has made himself known. He enjoys quick in-person meetings with team members, good-humored interactions, and an open atmosphere where ideas flow freely.
“I love the WAC and what it stands for,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to having some fun. You have to love what you do.”
Chuck originally made his name on the football field. He helped Washington win the 1982 Rose Bowl and went on to play five seasons in the NFL. He learned some of his first lessons in leadership from two former coaches—UW’s Don James and the Los Angeles Rams’ John Robinson.
“Don was incredibly organized,” Chuck says. “He had a chart that basically had every down and distance, every game situation charted out. I remember being very impressed by that. He didn’t make anything up as he went along.”
Robinson took a different approach, he says.
“John Robinson was the exact opposite. He was going to make decisions based on how he felt at the moment, what he thought the momentum of the game was, all the current real-time factors. He’d say, ‘Let’s put the right people in the right places and roll the ball out.’
“What I learned from him was to trust people to be what you think they are.”
James and Robinson did share one trait.
“Both of them were very good at making sure everybody knew what was expected, the level of excellence that was expected, and the consequences of not meeting those standards.”
Chuck, who turned 52 a few weeks after taking over the WAC’s top job, stayed trim following his football days and continues to do so with morning workouts at the WAC. He often gets in for some quick lifting and 20 to 30 minutes of cardio before 8 am.
After his playing days, Chuck worked as a stockbroker for 10 years. He went on to serve as chief operating officer at Rigel Capital before taking over the Boeing Classic. He also remains a member of the community board at Regence BlueShield of Washington, and he sits on the board of directors of the Seattle Sports Commission and Coastal Community Bank. From 1990 through 2009, he led a charity golf tournament for the Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County. The event raised about $750,000 during that time, he says.
His time in the financial trenches, his leadership skills and his commitment to community improvement all helped the search committee make its decision.
“Chuck had the whole package,” says Chairman of the Board of Governors Rob Fleming, who led the search to replace Jim Johnson. “He impressed us not only with his business and athletic achievements but also with his personal characteristics of integrity, humility and leadership.”
When you listen to Chuck speak, you can’t help but notice the smooth deep voice that anchored a nearly two-decade part-time broadcast career. Most recently, if you listened to UW football on the radio anytime between 2004 and 2009, you heard Chuck’s work.
Chuck never pursued full-time broadcast journalism for a fundamental reason. “I wanted to be a better father than that,” he says of a career that often comes with late-night hours and extended travel.
Instead, he and wife Nanette spent evenings at youth soccer and basketball games. That life will end soon.
This spring, son Quin graduates from Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett and daughter Emma graduates from the University of Portland. Also this year, Chuck and Nanette, who met as UW students, celebrate 25 years of marriage.
Nanette teaches yoga and is the cheer coach at Archbishop Murphy. She also runs a half marathon or two annually. “Despite the successes of all of us athletically, she’s the best athlete we have,” Chuck says.
The family attends Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bothell, and Chuck grew up Baptist. “Faith is a strong part of our life,” he says. “That’s a fundamental of who we are and what we do.”
Chuck also plays golf religiously, most often at Seattle Golf Club and Everett Golf & Country Club. He started as a youth, playing summer tournaments at Legion Memorial and sometimes jumping a fence to squeeze in a few holes beyond the eyes of course officials.
In college, he placed second in Washington team qualifying but didn’t fall into favor with the coach. “He said he wasn’t sure how I would handle the pressure of college golf,” Chuck recalls. “This was three months after I led the Pac-10 in scoring in football and played in the Rose Bowl. I told him, ‘I just played in the Rose Bowl in front of 105,000 people, I’m not going to get nervous over a four-footer in Corvallis.’”
While helping start the Boeing Classic in 2004, Chuck oversaw everything from sponsorships to parking spots.
“The Boeing Classic was a spectacular chance to really start, build and lead an organization from the ground,” he says.
He managed an annual budget of about $5 million and a brigade of roughly a thousand volunteers.
Shortly after he agreed to lead the tournament, he and former Seattle Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke, who also was instrumental in starting the event, met at the WAC and asked each other a question: “What do we want to call it?”
The answer followed another meeting, this one between Chuck and Alan Mulally, then a top boss of Boeing and now the president and CEO of Ford. During their discussion, Chuck convinced Mulally to sign on as title sponsor and commit millions of dollars to the event.
“Chuck was a true pioneer,” says Leiweke, now CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “He took a leap of faith and became the first executive director of the tournament. Largely because of him, that tournament is now regarded as one of the finest events on the Champions Tour.”
Chuck intends to keep the WAC at the top of its game, too.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of opportunities to be involved in some really great things with some good people and good organizations,” he says. “The WAC is a culmination of that. I’m thrilled and excited to walk into this building every day, and I’m looking forward to what’s next.”
Darrick Meneken is the managing editor of WAC Magazine. Reach him at email@example.com