Greg Nelson, Sr.
They say that no man is an island. Greg Nelson, Sr. who has made his home in Carlsbad for more than six decades would certainly agree. As the City of Carlsbad’s inaugural Citizen of the Year in 1991 and the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce Philanthropist of the Year in 2006, some might call Nelson a philanthropist nonpareil for his financial and leadership dedication to the community. And, although the title is befitting, he attributes his success not to personal savvy but to his wife of more than 30 years, Barbi, and his four children, Gregory Jr., Jenna, Brooke and Chad. They are the backbone of his story. They are his team.
The story of his youth has been told before: In 1959, Nelson, his brother Doug, and mother Mercedes, moved to Carlsbad from Arizona after his father left the family. He first set foot into the Carlsbad Boys Club (now the Boys and Girls Club) at his mother’s behest while she worked two jobs to support the family. Although the Club began as a playground and a safe place to go after school, Nelson soon embraced the Club’s mission of hope and opportunity, and began the journey to becoming a “productive, caring, responsible citizen.”
It has become a lifelong journey of listening, observation, emulation and dedication. From 1959 to 1967, the Club was his “second home.” Not only did he earn his first trophies in sports here but he also gained his first mentor, Executive Director Doug Hall. The Club even gave him his first job sweeping the woodshop floor and sanitizing the locker rooms with a mop. While so many people look at low spots in their lives as obstacles or excuses, Nelson has the tremendous ability to find the positive in any situation. From the age of nine onward, he grew up without a father. So he watched people, he watched interactions, and he learned.
Perhaps his greatest lesson from the Club is the importance not only of a team but also of the individual people on the team. To outsiders, the Boys and Girls Club may seem like an ordinary children’s program, but it is so much more. For Nelson, basketball wasn’t just something to keep a young man active; it was a way to learn about the importance of teamwork and social skills. He moved up to Athletic Director, and then, recognized as the “surfer boy,” he became Aquatics Director. Nelson took a few years off to attend MiraCosta College where he received his Associates Degree in Music; he never went back to school, but he never stopped learning. He returned to the Boys and Girls Club at the suggestion of Doug Hall and, over his lifetime, has worked in almost every area of the organization. He calls himself “a lifer.”
As he worked in the managing role at the San Dieguito Branch, his circle of influencers grew. He observed and emulated successful businessmen such as real estate developer Doug Allred. He admired their tenacity, positive mindsets, and ability to approach fundraising and management with a “can-do” attitude. They gave the children, their customers, more to do and more recognition for doing it. As the consummate Club insider, he understood the necessity of being proactive and providing programs and services that benefitted children and their families. The role of children as our future is something that he impresses upon everyone; they deserve every chance we can give them and everything extra we can provide.
Equally important, if not more so, were the life skills that Nelson learned from his mentors, including how to raise a loving family, and how to show love and appreciation to his wife. He learned from them what he had not learned from his father.
Nelson learned early on that he didn’t need to be the heaviest hitter in the room if he surrounded himself with a team of hard-working, dedicated individuals. As one of the founders of DonJoy, Inc. (now DJO Global), BREG, and owner of Gregorio’s Restaurant in Carlsbad, he calls himself “head cheerleader.” He has the uncanny ability to inspire people to be their best and work hard. When he bought Gregorio’s, he had no restaurant experience but he has crafted a lasting, successful business because of the team. They donate 100% of the profits to the Boys and Girls Club.
Regardless of all the hours he may work, Nelson has never placed his family second. His children played basketball and he made a point of attending every single one of their games, even if it meant long days and redeye flights as business grew. He practices what he preaches, that one’s family, the team, is the most important part of a man’s life.
As a devout Christian, Nelson feels that he has been blessed. His authentic self is humble and thankful. Although the path may not have been easy or straight, everything that has happened had a purpose. It is a plan. He believes that with all the blessings he has received comes a responsibility to give back; the more you give back, the more you are blessed. “We have been the benefactors of a lot of great things. It’s not about me. It never has been.” Greg Nelson finds genuine joy in giving back to the community. His eyes sparkle when he talks about the jewel that is Carlsbad, the Boys and Girls Club, his mentors, and especially his family.