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Dr. John Phillip "Phil" Nelson

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Nelson, Dr. John Phillip "Phil"
Dr. John Phillip "Phil" Nelson passed away on November 28, 2013. He was born to Dr. Carroll Chester Nelson and Marian Amblad Nelson on December 23, 1936 in Red Oak, Iowa. His family moved to Fremont, Nebraska, where Phil enjoyed a boy's life of blue skies, wide-open fields, hunting, fishing and honing his legendary skills on the golf course. He learned to play the saxophone and the banjo, and he enjoyed "sitting on the bench a lot" for his high school football team. Phil attended Grinnell College, where a course in biochemistry inspired him to pursue a career in medicine. He graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1962, where he ranked second in his class but first in the heart of Charleen Casement, whom he married in 1963. Phil and Charleen were devoted sweethearts until Char's passing in 2008, and together they raised four children. Phil completed his orthopaedic residency in 1969 at the Mayo Clinic, a term that was interrupted by two years of service in the Navy during the Vietnam War. From 1969 to 1989 Phil was in private practice in Denver, Colorado, where he specialized in adult reconstructive surgery with emphasis on joint replacement and infections. He was a pioneer in the advancement of clean room technology and a tireless medical scholar. In 1989 he continued his orthopaedic interests at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. Following retirement from Mayo in 1998, Phil served at Maricopa Medical Center for the Phoenix Orthopaedic Residency Program as Attending Surgeon (2000-2012) and as Interim Chairman, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery (2006-2012). Over the course of his career he presented hundreds of scientific lectures throughout the country, published 50 clinical papers, and performed more than 5,000 surgeries. Phil was an active member of dozens of professional organizations and served as president of the following: The Denver Medical Library (1986-1988); the Denver Medical Society (1981); The Hip Society (1990); The Association for Arthritic Hip and Knee Surgery (1991), and The Association for Promotion of Hip and Knee Surgery (1992). Phil was also a longtime member of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (certified in 1971) and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (Emeritus Fellow, 1973). He was appointed Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Mayo Medical School, and in 1994 and 1996 he was honored as a "Best Doctor in America." Phil Nelson was a brilliant surgeon and an unyielding advocate for excellence in patient care. To those who asked what he did for a living, Phil would reply: "I am a carpenter. I fix things with pins and screws." Phil's leadership skills were valued far beyond the hospital, as his community efforts included service on the Salvation Army Phoenix Advisory Board (1996-2003); the ValleyLife Board of Directors (2001-2013; Chairman 2004-2009), the Carl Hayden Veteran's Affairs Medical Center (2000-2009) and Maricopa Medical Center Foundation (2009-2012). When at home, Phil traded surgical masks and scrubs for jeans and tattered shirts (the older and softer, the better), not to mention well-worn work gloves and a dusty western hat. Ranchers at heart, Phil and Charleen together managed a major quarter horse training and breeding farm while in Colorado. Phil didn't ride horses often, but he greatly enjoyed their company. Likewise, he relished the ranch life of driving tractors, tending gardens, mending fence, raking leaves and overseeing a small herd of Texas longhorn cattle. Phil was a voracious reader of medical journals, scientific magazines and novels of all genres; he especially enjoyed books by Wallace Stegner. He was a fan of the Denver Broncos and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, an occasional dispenser of snarky humor, an eater of homemade Swedish meatballs, rice pudding, and cinnamon rolls, and a fancier of merlot wine. The tenacious intensity that marked his early life and career was eclipsed by an extraordinary tenderness over time; he was in all respects a most gentle man. Phil cherished his wife above all else, and she returned his affection with equal fondness. They were an incredible team. Other than his wife and family, however, Phil's greatest love was the game of golf. The mantel in his den is testimony to Phil's steady precision and strategic mastery on the course, as he took home countless trophies and bragging rights. This year, a championship tournament at Pinnacle Peak Country Club was named in Phil's honor. Phil often remarked that his favorite word was serendipity - a word that describes the phenomenon of "finding valuable or happy things not sought." Phil's chance meeting of his future wife in an elevator at Northwestern University was serendipitous, as was the fact that his daughter won a pony in a raffle at the age of seven (an event that and ultimately put Phil and family on a trajectory of rural living). Phil viewed his own life as a series of wonderful serendipities - and we now regard our time with him as the same. Words cannot adequately capture how much Phil will be missed as a physician, friend, neighbor, community leader and golf buddy. But no one will miss him more than those who were fortunate enough to call him dad and grandpa. He was dedicated to us in every possible way, and it is an honor and privilege to carry on his legacy. Phil Nelson is survived by his four children, son Dr. Chris Nelson (wife Nancy and five grandchildren, Andrew, Bradley, Caroline, Michael and Faith); daughter Wendy Claus (husband Scot Claus and grandson Spencer); son Drew Nelson (wife Sharon and granddaughters Kaylee and Meghan); and son Joel Nelson. Phil also is survived by his brother, Dr. Paul Nelson of Omaha, Nebraska. Phil's additional survivor friends include his sweet cats, Milo and Chloe, his faithful dog Mollie, his Rhode Island Red chicken "Big Red," and his beloved 33-year old quarter horse mare, Brandy. A celebration of Phil Nelson's life is being planned by his family; the family may be reached at Gifts in Phil Nelson's honor may be made to ValleyLife or The National Geographic Society.

Published in The Arizona Republic on Dec. 8, 2013
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